You’d be forgiven for letting it slip your mind, but last July three spacecraft launched to Mars. Now, after a journey of seven months, they’re all about to arrive.
So, what are they?
The missions are from three different countries – the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), China, and the U.S. – and they all launched within a few weeks of each other.
Launches to Mars are best attempted every 26 months, when our two planets align in their orbits for the shortest trip, which is why they launched at the same time.
The first of the three to arrive is going to be the U.A.E.’s Hope spacecraft, which launched on July 19 and should enter orbit around the Red Planet tomorrow, Tuesday, February 9.
Hope is the first interplanetary spacecraft ever launched by the Arab world, obviously making it the first Arabian mission to Mars too.
Weighing in at 1,350 kilograms and with a cost of $200 million, the spacecraft will be situated between 20,000 and 43,000 kilometers above the surface of Mars, completing an orbit once every 55 hours.
The spacecraft will be inclined 25 degrees to the Martian equator, allowing it to observe most of the planet as it rotates underneath.
It has three instruments on board, designed to measure the Martian atmosphere and its weather, look for dust storms and ice clouds, and even monitor the seasons on Mars.
Of course, it also has a camera on board, and will be returning some no doubt stunning images of the Red Planet back to Earth over the course of its two-year mission.
This could be extended to four years, however, if the spacecraft remains healthy.
Following right on its footsteps will be China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which launched on July 23 and is set to enter orbit around Mars on Wednesday, February 10.
Like the UAE, this is China’s first mission to Mars – although it has performed numerous Earth orbit and lunar missions, including a recent return of Moon samples to Earth.
The mission comprises an orbiter weighing about 3,000 kilogrgams and a rover weighing in at 240 kilograms.
The latter is scheduled to touch down on the Martian surface in May, using a similar architecture to the Chang’e series of Moon landers.
If successful, China will become only the third nation to land on Mars after the U.S. and the Soviet Union – although the latter’s Mars 3 lander lasted just a few seconds in 1971.
The nature of the landing however – entering orbit before touching down on the surface – is different from previous landings, which flew direct to the surface.
Tianwen-1’s rover will touch down in a region of Mars called Utopia Planitia. The landing platform will touch down, before the rover then descends to the surface from a deployed ramp.
The mission is expected to last 90 Martian days (known as sols, roughly 93 Earth days), but could be extended beyond that.
Using solar power, and equipped with six instruments and two cameras, the rover will trundle across the surface, returning images and data to Earth.
Some of its science goals include looking for water-ice underground, although a lot of its other planned activities remain unknown for now.
Then, on February 18, it’s the big one. NASA’s $2.7 billion Perseverance rover, having launched from Earth on July 30, is scheduled to touch down in Jezero Crater on Mars.
Perseverance, weighing in at 1,025 kilograms, is aesthetically identical to its predecessor Curiosity, which touched down on Mars in August 2012. This time around, however, it has more ambitious science goals.
While Curiosity looked for evidence that Mars was once habitable – confirming that was the case – Perseverance will be actively looking for past life on Mars.
Jezero Crater, which it will explore for two years, is home to what was once a river delta and lake and lake billions of years ago, a possible prime location for life.
Perseverance will use instruments to study Martian rocks, and look for signs of organics or even microfossils of microbial life stored within.
Excitingly, it will store some samples on the surface in small cigar-sized caches, which will be picked up by a “fetch” mission from Europe and the U.S. later this decade.
The rover has plenty of other tools up its sleeves, too. It will take images and even videos of the surface for one, including stunning vistas of Jezero Crater.
It will also practice turning carbon dioxide from the Martian air into oxygen, a potentially useful tool for future human missions to Mars.
Like Tianwen-1, it will also look under the Martian surface for water-ice using a ground-penetrating radar, and it will also monitor the Martian weather.
And that’s not all. Within the first 50 days or so of the mission, it will deploy a helicopter on the surface of Mars called Ingenuity.
While only a technical demonstration, this will be the first-ever attempt at flight on the surface of another planet.
If successful, similar technology could also be used on future human missions to Mars.
So, there’s plenty to be excited about as these Mars missions begin to arrive.
First with Hope, and then Tianwen-1 and ultimately Perseverance, the Red Planet is suddenly about to get a lot busier with human visitors.
And presuming they all arrive as planned, we should be in for years of exciting images and data back from Mars – perhaps, even, tantalizing evidence for life itself.