Illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover collecting samples on MarsNASA/JPL-Caltech

If 2020 was the year of multiple Mars mission launches – from NASA’s Perseverance rover to China’s Tianwen-1 to the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe – 2021 is set to be a year of new discoveries on Mars. All three missions took advantage of a unique alignment between Mars and Earth that only occurs every 26 months. Journeys are much quicker and more efficient when both the planets are on the same side of the sun.

The United States’ mission involves landing a roving vehicle, Perseverance, on Mars to study the surface environment, with an emphasis on habitability, past life, and sample collection for future missions. There are several different ways in which the mission could pave the way for future human expeditions to Mars and it demonstrates technologies that may be used in those endeavours.

Perseverance is equipped with multiple cameras and microphones to record the landing live. NASA expects to have these videos and images back on Earth within a few weeks of the landing. To complete its scientific missions, the rover is fitted with seven scientific instruments, each designed to perform a different experiment. These include SHERLOC, which contains an advanced ultraviolet scanner and a microscopic camera. It will look for clues that could help solve the mystery of past life on Mars. SHERLOC will also carry samples of astronaut space suit material, testing to see whether they can withstand the harsh Martian environment. Another instrument, called MOXIE, will attempt to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.

“Perseverance will allow NASA to explore new areas of the planet, and test technology that could pave the way for humans to travel to Mars.”

In seven months, Perseverance will travel a distance of about 300 million miles and is due to arrive on 18th February. The rover will perform numerous scientific missions during its one Martian year mission (687 Earth Days). The mission is also carrying the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, a small rotorcraft designed to fly in the tenuous Martian atmosphere. If it succeeds, it will be the first helicopter to fly on another planet and is a clear depiction of mankind breaking boundaries.

Although the Mars Curiosity Rover – NASA’s mission to the Red Planet in 2011 – continues to operate and send back vital scientific data, Perseverance will allow NASA to explore new areas of the planet, and test technology that could pave the way for humans to travel to Mars.

Tianwen-1 is a Chinese Mars mission, comprising a rover and an orbiter that will enter Mars’ orbit in February 2021, but the rover will not land until May. This mission is the first time a nation has attempted to send an orbiter and a rover to Mars on the first attempt. The scientific objectives of the mission are to study Martian geology and topography, characterise the soil and its water-ice content, and profile the Martian ionosphere, climate and environment.

“We are now at a junction where we know a great deal about the planet, and we have the technology to explore further.”

The rover can communicate with the orbiter and Earth directly. It includes instruments for studying Mars’ climate and geology, and even has a tool to zap rocks and record their chemical signatures. The rover radar will shoot radio waves into the surface and measure the reflection time, allowing scientists to piece together a 3D map of what lies beneath Mars’s surface.

China has stated that the rover will attempt to land in a designated area of Utopia Planitia, a huge basin formed by an impact far back in Mars’s history. Although China has previously landed twice on the moon, Tianwen-1 is China’s first independent interplanetary mission, and landing on Mars, with its different gravity field, thin atmosphere and remoteness, presents new and greater challenges.

This will be the first time a rover will search for water from the ground. Theoretically, about 4 billion years ago, something happened to Mars’s atmosphere, and most of the liquid water evaporated. It is possible that some of it may still be underground, shielded safely from harmful solar radiation. If this is the case, could those pockets of water contain life?


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Lastly, the Emirates Hope Probe is set to reach the Red Planet’s orbit in February 2021 and will be the first to provide a comprehensive picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers. Its primary scientific objectives are to search for a connection between current Martian weather and the ancient climate of Mars and to study how Mars lost part of its atmosphere to space by tracking the behaviour of oxygen and hydrogen. The probe will also investigate how the lower and upper levels of the Martian atmosphere are connected, and create a global picture of how the Martian atmosphere varies through the day and year.

The Hope Probe will have an elliptical orbit ranging between 20,000 and 43,000 km, with one complete orbit taking 55 hours on average. The probe will stay in orbit for one Martian year to gather novel data, which will be made available to the scientific community through the mission’s data centre.

Out of the eight planets in our Solar System, Mars is the most similar to Earth. Indeed, the Red Planet has captured the human imagination for centuries and has been a high-priority target for space exploration since the early 1960s. We are now at a junction where we know a great deal about the planet, and we have the technology to explore further. Mars missions are long-term, collaborative projects that could one day answer some of our pressing questions regarding extraterrestrial life and expanding human civilization to other planets.