The UAE is the only country that will not attempt a soft landing during the February Mars invasion. Instead, its Hope orbiter will study the Martian atmosphere from more than 12,000 miles above the surface. Planetary scientists hope that the UAE’s robo-meteorologist will fill in gaps in our understanding of the Martian climate and help validate environmental data captured by rovers and landers on the ground. For the country’s first foray into deep-space exploration, the UAE space agency worked with an international team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to help plan the mission and build the spacecraft.
“There’s really no point in exploring outer space without adding to knowledge, and we’ve never run a science mission,” Sarah bint Yousef Al Amiri, the UAE minister of state for advanced sciences and science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission, said during a press conference last week. “It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was such an enjoyment to rethink how you develop a planetary exploration mission.”The Hope spacecraft will be the first new orbiter around Mars since the European Space Agency’s ExoMars spacecraft arrived in 2016, but it won’t be the newcomer for long. China’s Tianwen-1 mission —which is a lander, rover, and orbiter rolled up into one—is expected to arrive less than a day later. China’s space agency has been quiet about its plans for visiting the Red Planet, but the craft is expected to attempt a landing shortly after it achieves orbit.
And one of the very first things NASA does when a spacecraft lands on another planet is to have it take a selfie: “Let me see your wheels in the dirt so I know you got there safely.” Or “Snap a photo of your solar panels so we can see how dirty they are.” A simple selfie can tell a science team if an instrument is broken, say, or how close it might be to an object.
Unlike NASA’s car-sized Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, China’s Tianwen-1 rover is small enough to stow away inside the stationary lander that will carry it to the surface. Once it has safely touched down, the six-wheeled rover will detach itself from the lander and spend the next three months exploring its landing site, Utopia Planitia, the planet’s largest impact crater. The rover and lander will both relay data from the surface to the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which will send it back to Earth. Although the Chinese National Space Administration hasn’t provided a lot of details about the exact scientific goals of its mission, a paper about it published last year in Nature Astronomy says the agency’s goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”On February 18, a little more than a week after this robotic delegation arrives, NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to touch down. This will involve a harrowing descent to the surface, during which the rover must reduce its speed from more than 10,000 miles an hour to just a few feet per second over the course of 15 minutes. The descent will end with some aerial acrobatics, during which a rocket-powered sky crane will gently deposit the rover on the surface while hovering a few dozen feet above the ground.
“Don’t let anybody tell you different—landing on Mars is hard to do,” John McNamee, project manager for the Perseverance mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “But the women and men on this team are the best in the world at what they do. When our spacecraft hits the top of the Mars atmosphere at about three and a half miles per second, we’ll be ready.”