Mars Gets Busy
Mars is getting crowded, with a number of separate space agencies reaching the Red Planet in recent weeks. Three new probes from three countries arrived in February, with NASA and China both touching down on the surface in recent days. While only the US, Russia, and China have touched down on Mars so far, other nations have achieved orbit. There are currently six space agencies orbiting Mars: the USA, Europe, Russia, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates. While it's far from a traffic jam, more crowded Martian skies could be a sign of things to come.
The current Martian party didn't happen by coincidence. Touching down or even reaching orbit on a distant planet is far from easy, with scientists only having a small window of opportunity to work with. Recent activity is down to the mechanics of planetary orbits. According to Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard University astrophysicist, Mars and Earth are like "runners on a circular racetrack, [and] the really fast runner [Earth] regularly laps the runner just on the outside [Mars]. So sometimes they're right next to each other." The entire Earth-Mars cycle takes about two years, with probes launching when the two planets are near to their closest point.
The United Arab Emirates was the first country to arrive in the Martian skies this year, with its Hope probe achieving orbit on the 9th of February. As the nation's first interplanetary mission, this represented a very big success. China also set out on its first interplanetary mission in 2020, with the Tianwen-1 probe first entering orbit over Mars and then achieving touchdown. Both probes completed a journey of nearly seven-months to reach the Red Planet.
NASA joined the party shortly after, with the Perseverance rover reaching orbit and touching down, and the Ingenuity helicopter achieving powered flight on another planet for the first time. Interestingly, Perseverance is the first Mars rover tasked with finding evidence of past life. Pictures and audio from multiple flights are available at the NASA website, with Ingenuity continuing to explore the surface for rocks that may contain signs of past microscopic life.
The Tianwen-1 interplanetary mission by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) achieved touchdown on Mars just a few days ago on the 14th of May. This mission included an orbiter, a lander, and a rover that is currently exploring the surface of the Red Planet. The success of this mission represents a huge leap forward in China's space ambitions, with the nation having joined an elite club of spacefaring nations with this historic landing.
It's not the first time Mars has been this busy, with the Soviet Union having launched four spacecraft in 1973. Things are different this time, however, with new players leading to much more international diversity. NASA has three orbiters currently active in Martian orbit, the European Space Agency (ESA) has one, and there's also a joint project between the ESA and the Russian Roscosmos. In addition, the Indian Space Research Organization has an active orbiter, and NASA's Curiosity and InSight projects are both still active on the Martian surface.