2020: Getting Ready for the Summer of Mars
ExoMars rover, artist impression. Credit: ESA

2020: Getting Ready for the Summer of Mars

30/10/2019Written by Harsh Patel

Not one but four missions are headed to Mars in 2020!

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mascot Telescope Right
Mars. Credit: NASA

Coming up in summer 2020, another giant leap in space exploration is about to take place.

A launch window opens between 17 July to 5 August 2020 that offers missions from Earth to Mars their best interplanetary route.

So mark your calendars because we may be about to witness the historic launch of the most missions to Mars at any one time.

Not one but four Mars missions are getting ready to launch in 2020.

Why 2020?

Why 2020?
Hohmann transfer for InSight. Credit: Phoenix7777

Rockets can launch anytime from Earth, but for space missions travelling beyond Earth’s orbit, it’s crucial to sync launches with the planetary motions of our Solar System. This helps to save both cost and time by allowing the planets to line up for a perfect route.

For an expedition to Mars, a launch window opens every 2.2 years whereby Earth and Mars are close together and the journey takes the least amount of rocket fuel and time. These windows are dependent on both the rocket’s capability and the orbit of Mars. The most efficient route to Mars is called the Hohmann transfer orbit. For example, see the pink curve for the InSight mission graphic, right. This can take a spacecraft from a low orbit around Earth to a higher orbit to Mars.

Why Mars?

Why Mars?
Ancient oceans on Mars, artist impression. Credit: NASA
Why Mars?
Evidence of ancient lakes on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars has always been an intriguing planet, and recent missions make it an even more compelling place to explore.

There is strong evidence that Mars was once warmer, with a thicker atmosphere and large seas and rivers that flowed on its surface. It’s possible that primitive life once existed on ancient Mars, and many of today’s missions to Mars focus on the search for fossilised or even current life below its surface.

After Earth, Mars is the most habitable planet in the Solar System for humans. This is due to various reasons such as:

– Its soil contains water that may be possible to extract.

– Mars’ day/night rhythm is very similar to Earth’s (24 hours and 39 minutes).

– There is enough sunlight for solar panels to operate.

– Mars isn’t too cold or too hot, with a temperature range of about -150°C to 20°C, similar to high-altitude deserts here on Earth.

That’s not to say that living on Mars will be easy.

It’s a hostile environment at the best of times, and many of the challenges in sending a human mission focus on how to protect humans for long periods of time from the extremes of pressure, temperature, and radiation.

To learn more, not one but four different space agencies are gearing up to launch a mission to Mars in 2020. This is an unprecedented level of Martian activity, largely focused on searching for signs of alien life and advancing our knowledge of the habitability of the red planet.

1. Europe’s ExoMars rover - Rosalind Franklin

For the first time ever, the European Space Agency is sending a rover to Mars.

Thanks to a public vote, this historic rover is named after a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin. She helped discover the double helix structure of DNA and massively contributed to the study of carbon, coal, and graphite materials. The Rosalind Franklin rover is the second part of the ExoMars programme. It will demonstrate the feasibility of several technologies that are essential for future exploration missions, such as the planned Mars Sample Return mission.

ExoMars rover, artist impression. Credit: ESA

The Rosalind Franklin rover is carrying cutting edge technology including the largest drill (2 metres long) ever sent to Mars. For comparison, the Curiosity rover has a 2 centimetre long drill. The Rosalind Franklin rover will also be able to guide itself across the Martian surface by using advanced camera eyes and artificial intelligence. This avoids the need to send commands directly from Earth, where a return radio signal takes on average 28 minutes between Mars and Earth.

Main objectives:

– Search for signs of past and present life on Mars.

– Investigate Martian atmospheric trace gases and their sources.

– Understand how present-day Mars has been shaped by changes in its atmosphere, water and weather across the past four billion years.

Find out more: Digging for Alien Life: Where to Land the ExoMars Rover.

2. NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission

2. NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission
Mars 2020 rover. Credit: NASA
2. NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission
Mars 2020 quad-copter, artist impression. Credit: NASA

NASA is also sending a rover to Mars in 2020, as part of its long-duration programme of Mars robotic exploration.

The Mars 2020 rover will be the size of an average car and will follow in the wheel tracks of the Curiosity rover by searching for signs of ancient microbial life under the surface of Mars.

The rover will collect and analyse promising core samples, but it will also store them for future missions that could potentially return to them Earth.

Mars 2020 will also test a technique of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, preparing for future human exploration. This will be done by demonstrating key technologies that will extract the little oxygen that’s already on Mars.

Living off the natural resources of Mars is essential for future human missions to Mars and this key test will help us pave the way.

3. UAE Space Agency’s Hope Spacecraft

3. UAE Space Agency’s Hope Spacecraft
Emirates Mars Mission Hope spacecraft. Credit: UAE Space Agency

For the first time, the UAE is also sending a mission to Mars.

The Emirates Mars Mission plans to launch the Mars Hope orbiter in July 2020, in order to study the atmosphere and climate on Mars. It will be equipped with star trackers that will be used to navigate its way towards Mars.

The Hope spacecraft will include:

– A digital camera that will capture HD images looking down at the red planet.

– An Infra-Red and Ultraviolet Spectrometer to examine the temperature patterns and study the upper atmosphere for any trace oxygen.

4. China’s Mars 2020 Mission

4. China’s Mars 2020 Mission
China Mars 2020 rover, artist impression. Credit: Xinhau

And finally, China is planning to send an orbiter and a rover on the same trip, in order to take full advantage of the 2020 launch window.

Priorities for this mission include searching for both current and previous life, and evaluating the planet’s surface and climate.

The Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover will contain a total of 12 scientific instruments, such as high resolution and multi-spectrum cameras.

If all goes to plan, we’re about to witness four exhilarating launches across the globe as well as four Mars arrivals and three nerve-wracking landings on Mars.
Summer 2020 really does promise to be the summer of Mars.

About the author: Harsh Patel is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.