China and the United Arab Emirates are joining the United States in launching missions to Mars within the next month as global interest in space exploration grows.
The U.S. is the only country to successfully land a rover on Mars. The Chinese mission, which is Beijing’s first solo attempt at the Red Planet, includes an orbiter, lander, and a rover. The UAE is sending a craft to orbit Mars in what will be the first ever interplanetary mission by an Arab nation, according to Business Insider.
The countries aim to take advantage of a window that opens about once every two years when Mars is orbiting at its closest point to Earth. The UAE’s mission is scheduled to take off first from Japan on Wednesday. NASA has pushed back the U.S. launch to July 30. China has yet to announce a launch date but is planning for some time in late July, as well, before the window closes on Aug. 15.
Russia had also planned a mission to Mars over the summer, but delays caused by the pandemic have forced Moscow to push off the mission until 2022 when Mars will again orbit relatively close to the Earth.
The U.S. has landed four rovers on Mars since 1997. The fifth, called Perseverance, will have a notably different mission than the previous operations which were mostly dedicated to exploration and searching for signs of water on the barren planet, according to the science journal Nature.
The Perseverance will collect samples of Martian soil and rocks that will later be carried to Earth on a future mission. The samples, specially chosen to give scientists the most information, will be studied by researchers to determine whether life has ever existed or is possible on Mars. The rock samples will also reveal some of the planet’s history of formation and change.
“This mission gives us the first opportunity to take fundamental questions about whether there was or wasn’t life on Mars to the next level,” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory astrobiologist Sherry Cady said.
The goal of the UAE mission, conducted by the county’s relatively new space program, is to put a craft in orbit around Mars that will study the planet’s weather and fill in the gaps left by previous missions. The UAE orbiter, if its able to reach the planet, should be able to give the most comprehensive view yet of the weather patterns on Mars.
“We’ll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year,” UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences Sarah Al Amiri told Nature.
China hopes to pull off a trifecta of sending an aircraft into orbit, landing a platform, and dispatching a rover to Mars in one mission for the first time. Once on the ground, the Chinese rover will build on past missions by the U.S. and search the planet for signs of water and possible life.
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