Every two years the Earth and Mars align, reducing the time to travel between the planets. 2020 is one of those years and three countries plan to take advantage of the window to launch robotic missions to the red planet: the U.S., the United Arab Emirates and China.
The window for launches opens July 14 and ends about 30 days days later, however, NASA recently said it’s looking at possibly expanding that window this year after it faced a few delays preparing its Mars rover to launch.
Europe and Russia had also planned to send a life-seeking rover to Mars, called ExoMars, this summer, but after testing delays and then getting hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the mission has been pushed out another two years to the next Mars launch window.
UAE’s first Mars mission
A UAE Space Agency mission will be the first Mars launch of the summer. This is a big step for a relatively new space program with big ambitions. The UAE Amal, which means Hope in Arabic, probe is scheduled to launch in July on a Japanese rocket.
Due to poor weather at the Japanese launch site, the liftoff was delayed to no earlier than July 19.
Hope is designed to orbit Mars and study the Martian atmosphere using three scientific instruments on board of the spacecraft. According to the space agency, Hope will improve understanding of circulation and weather in the Martian lower and middle atmosphere.
Now, NASA really knows how to draw interest ahead of a big mission and the UAE is also pulling out all the stops. Recently, the UAE Space Agency partnered with comedian and actor Kevin Hart to promote an international competition surrounding the launch.
As the historic launch of the #HopeProbe approaches, the UAE joined forces with Hollywood star, @kevinhart4real to launch @MarsShotUAE, an international campaign that encourages people to share their wildest dreams. Three winners will be chosen to have their dreams fulfilled!1/1 pic.twitter.com/Sdxagy80Rn— وكالة الإمارات للفضاء (@uaespaceagency) July 9, 2020
Currently, Hope is set to launch from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center. You can stream the launch here in multiple languages.
Regardless of when it launches in the 30-day window, Hope should arrive in Mars’ orbit in February 2021.
Toward the end of July, NASA is next up to launch its mission to Mars. This comes in the form of a rover named Perseverance designed to search for signs of previous life on the red planet and collect samples to be collected and returned to Earth on another mission.
The U.S. has the best track record for Martian missions so far.
Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.
NASA’s mission launching this summer is another rover, similar to Curiosity, but with a whole new suite of science instruments, a better set of wheels and it’s bringing the first ever Martian helicopter strapped to its belly.
United Launch Alliance is scheduled to launch the rover on July 30 from Cape Canaveral. NASA says it has until Aug. 15 to launch the mission within the Mars launch window.
Perseverance is set to touch down on Feb. 18 in an area that was once flush with water 3.5 billion years ago known as the Jezero Crater. There were 60 other sites considered for landing but scientists picked Jezero because it has the best potential to have once hosted life.
China’s Tianwen trifecta
China’s mission to Mars is one with a bit less information available because the China National Space Administration does not grant interviews to U.S. news media.
The country is aiming to send its first successful mission to Mars this summer -- actually three in one: Tianwen-1 is an orbiter, lander and rover. The trifecta is set to launch sometime around July 23 from China.
This mission would be huge for China’s planetary space program and comes on the heels of a successful launch and landing of the Chang’e-4 rover on the far side of the moon last year. CNSA has plans to send another rover and lander later this year and several more in the years to follow.
Tianwen-1 would also reach Mars in February and the name of the rover has not been released. The spacecraft Tianwen means Questions for Heaven in Chinese.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.