Undoubtedly, some of the greatest moments in astronautics are those that are related to the arrival of new missions to Mars. The fact that this only can only happen once every two years, that the chances of success are approximately 50/50, shows that the study of the Red Planet is not for the faint of heart.
Within the next 10 days, a total of three missions will arrive on Mars – Arab, Chinese and American. The Arab Al-Amal (translates as “Hope”) and the Chinese Tianwen-1 are to become artificial satellites on the planet on February 9th and 10th, respectively.
The US rover Perseverance will make a direct landing without entering orbit on February 18. As long as China’s arrival around the Red Planet on the 10th is successful, the first Chinese rover to land on the Martian surface may follow in May.
Ideally, after ten days have passed, we will celebrate three successes. In the not so ideal scenario – some of the missions will suffer accidents (as I emphasized, the chance of success of each of them is about 50%). The nightmare scenario, which is as realistic as the ideal one, would mean the crash of all three robotic expeditions.
The last time such a nightmare happened was in 1999 when NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, Deep Space 2, and Mars Polar Lander automatic stations all crashed.
The easiest task is the Arab mission “Al-Amal”, which will reach the Martian orbit on February 9. The facilitation comes from the fact that Al-Amal does not have a landing gear, but will only work as an artificial satellite. But that doesn’t mean the arrival maneuver will be trivial. The engines of the automatic station will have to run for 27 minutes in fully automated mode, without assistance from the Earth.
Nevertheless, such a maneuver has never been attempted by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency, and as the UAE Minister of High Technology explained it, running the engines for 27 minutes will burn out 50% of the fuel onboard.
And if for the Arab world this is the first attempt to reach Mars, for China it will be the second. I remind readers that the previous Chinese mission was attached as a secondary payload to the Russian Phobos-Grunt expedition in 2011. But Phobos-Grunt failed soon after the launch and with it the Chinese probe. Today, the Chinese are trying to reach the Red Planet alone – without the Russians.
Unlike the Arab project, which includes only an orbital spacecraft, the Chinese robotic station “Tianwen-1” is a complex of an orbital spacecraft, a lander, and a rover. February 10 will be just the arrival in orbit. Only if it is successful and everything is fine, a landing will follow in a few months.
The most difficult task once again falls on NASA’s experts. The Perseverance rover will not enter orbit around Mars first but will make a direct landing through a complex system of a heat shield, parachute, and a special retro rocket platform called a “sky crane”. Thanks to this platform, the rover will be gently lowered to the Martian surface by ropes.
The technology worked once – when the Curiosity landed in 2011, so US scientists have gained experience. However, there are some innovations, including a change in the method of opening the parachute, which will happen sooner or later depending on the deviation from the target. These innovations add serious risk.
The Arab mission dubbed “Hope” should reach orbit within the next hours. Hopefully, it will be a successful maneuver and the Arab world will mark its biggest success in astronautics!
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• Abbany, Z. (2021, February 08). Three Mars missions arriving in February 2021.
• Bartels, M. (2021, February 08). The United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe APPROACHES MARS.
• Deutsche Welle. (n.d.). Three Mars missions arriving in February 2021: DW: 08.02.2021.
• Jones, A. (2021, February 08). Mars madness! china, UAE to reach the red planet this week ahead of Epic NASA rover landing.
• Vito Technology. (2021, February 08). Three missions to Mars are set to arrive in February!