Missions from China, the UAE, and the USA have all arrived on, or near to, Mars. This is the first time three different countries have sent missions to the planet at the same time. Why? This episode will look at the reasons behind each of the three current missions, investigate why we want to travel there at all, and what the future holds for Mars and humanity!
Other Space Related Episodes!
Humanity (n) – people in general
In the war they committed many crimes against humanity!
To glimmer (v) – to shine with a weak light
The lights of the village were glimmering in the distance
To orbit (v) – to follow a curved path around a planet or star
On this mission the shuttle will orbit the Earth at a height of several hundred kilometers
Mission (n) – a group of people or objects sent somewhere to investigate or achieve a goal
This is their third mission to the Moon!
Exploration (n) – the act of traveling to a place or searching a place in order to learn about it
Space exploration is one of the main goals of his government!
Atmosphere (n) – a mixture of gases that surrounds any planet
We are searching for a planet with a breathable atmosphere
To replicate (v) – to make or do something again in exactly the same way
Researchers have tried many times to replicate the original experiment
Colony (n) – a country or area controlled politically by a more powerful country that is often far away
Australia and New Zealand are former British colonies
Mars has fascinated humanity for almost all of recorded history. Among the night sky, the glimmering red planet stands out from the shining stars as something different. The planet also shares a name with the Roman god of war. When human’s invented telescopes in the 1800s, we were able to see the patterns and landforms that cover the surface of Mars for the first time. Although Mars is now a cold, lifeless, and dry planet, we now know that billions of years ago Mars may have been just as green and full of life as our planet!
Since the 1960s, we have tried to discover as much as possible about our neighbour. Especially important has been the question of life on the planet: was there ever life on Mars? So far all of our missions there have been without people. Although humans have orbited the earth and stood on the surface of the Moon, Mars is a completely different and much more complicated challenge. For example, it takes months, not days, to travel there. Early missions to Mars just flew spacecraft past the planet while taking as many pictures as possible. These were followed by orbiters which travelled around the planet, and eventually rovers which landed on the surface. NASA and a number of other important figures in space exploration have set targets to send people to the red planet!
I have previously recorded two different podcasts about outer space and planets. One of my first episodes was on the possibility of life on Venus. I’ve also recorded one based on China’s successful landing on the Moon. I’ll link them both in the description! In the episode about China and the Moon, I mentioned the possibility of a new space race involving different countries and even private companies. These last few weeks has demonstrated that might be happening. In the last month, the USA, China, and the UAE have all had missions reach Mars. What is the purpose of each of these missions? Why are we interested in the planet? What does the future hold for humans and Mars?
Every 26 months the distance between Earth and Mars is the shortest possible, and therefore this is the best time for space agencies to head to the planet. Sometimes there have been no missions to the planet, other times one agency has sent a mission, and occasionally two different agencies have tried to get there. However, for the first time ever, three space agencies have launched missions at the same time. In fact, there are currently 10 spacecraft from five different space agencies — the United States, European Union, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates — either orbiting or on the ground on Mars. Let’s look at the three recent missions in a little more detail.
The UAE’s mission is known as the Hope Orbiter. Although the UAE is a tiny country of less than 10 million people, they became the fifth space agency to reach Mars on February 9th 2021. The Hope Orbiter aims to study the atmosphere of Mars and understand how and why the planet lost that atmosphere. Mars once had surface water and potentially similar conditions to Earth. These disappeared alongside the atmosphere. If we can learn more about Mars’ experiences, perhaps we can better understand our own atmosphere and the conditions necessary for life to develop!
The sixth space agency to reach Mars lost out to the UAE by one day. China’s current mission reached the planet of February 10th. In my previous episode about China’s rovers on the moon, I mentioned how successful they had been in surviving the harsh conditions and collecting samples from the surface. They hope to replicate this success on the red planet! Tianwen-1, as the mission is known, is now successfully orbiting the planet. It will continue to do so for a few months before attempting to land on the surface in May! It has many different scientific tools to examine the planet, including an instrument to search for water under the ground!
The USA’s Perseverance rover is the final mission to reach Mars this year! Actually, to be completely honest, as I’m writing this it is actually still approaching the planet. Hopefully it will be successful at landing tomorrow! The Perseverance is NASA’s fourth rover to land on the planet. A rover is a spacecraft designed to land on and move around on the surface of a planet, Moon, or other object in space! This time, they are planning to search for signs of life such as tiny fossils on the planet’s surface! It will also experiment at turning CO2 into Oxygen and collect some rock samples!
Why are we so interested in Mars? Well, I’ve already mentioned it, but everything we have learned about the planet suggests it was once able to have an ecosystem like ours and maybe still has some signs of life! Although water does exist on Mars, it’s stuck in the planet’s icy polar caps and buried beneath the Martian surface. However, when we look at the planet, we can see signs left behind by ancient rivers and streams. At some time, it went through massive transformation which left the planet dry and dangerous. What happened? Where did the water and atmosphere go? Studying Mars can answer these questions while searching for signs of life. In fact, the more we learn about Mars, the easier it will be to try to live there, someday in the future.
What does the future hold for missions to Mars? Well, undoubtedly the most exciting and spectacular plans are being made by a private company, not a national space agency. SpaceX, a company headed by Elon Musk, has ambitions to transport passengers to Mars. Musk has even talked about setting up a human colony on the planet! A human mission to Mars would be the number one ambition for all organisations. Ever since Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the Moon 50 years ago, we have hoped Mars would be next. It is not easy, though! Mars in about seven months away from our planet which makes it much more difficult to take passengers. Human missions also need to be able to return to Earth – again this is significantly more difficult to achieve! In addition, it is far more expensive!
On this episode of thinking in English we have looked at the different missions currently taking place on, or around, Mars. We also talked about why Mars is so fascinating for our scientists, and what the future might hold for missions! Travelling to Mars is expensive and complicated. Is it worth it? Some argue that it teaches us important scientific lessons, and can help us prepare for life on the planet. However, sometimes space exploration feels more like a competition between countries to see who is the most powerful, and less like a scientific experiment. What do you think? Should we be trying to send missions, and eventually people, to Mars? Let me know what your opinion is!