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A launch window that only happens every 26 months means it’s the perfect time to head to Mars! The United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States all took advantage of this excellent timing.

Host: Caitlin Hofmeister

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Image Sources: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU 中新网 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Rome/ASI/PSI NASA/JPL-Caltech

It's been a huge year for Mars missions! In the last couple of weeks, three agencies have sent spacecraft to the Red Planet.

The United Arab Emirates launched Hope on July 19th, China launched Tianwen-1 on the 23rd, and the U. S. just launched Perseverance! With so much happening, it might seem like there's a competition here — but really, the culprit is just orbital mechanics.

Theoretically, you could go to Mars whenever, but it's really only practical every 26 months. During that launch window, Earth and Mars are arranged in such a way that getting to. Mars takes way less fuel than normal.

And this summer happens to be an ideal launch window! So now, we have three missions heading to Mars. First, the UAE's Hope orbiter.

This mission is all about climate and weather. It'll study Mars's weather for a full Martian year, and it'll also study the hydrogen and oxygen in the planet's upper atmosphere — both of which will help answer an important question: Where is Mars's air? We know the planet used to have a much thicker atmosphere, because there used to be liquid water on the surface, and maintaining that requires a certain amount of atmospheric pressure.

But today, Mars is super dry, and its atmospheric pressure is only 0.6% of Earth's. Data from other missions suggest that charged particles from the Sun stripped away most of that gas, and Hope plans to study this in more detail, reconstructing the history of Mars's climate and linking it to its current weather. It's also planning to build the first weather map of the whole planet — something that will come in handy for research, and maybe even for a future settlement.

Because at least for now, the UAE is hoping to start a community on Mars by 2117. Meanwhile, Tianwen-1 is planning to study Mars from the outside in, tackling its atmosphere, surface, and subsurface. Unlike Hope, this is a multi-part mission with an orbiter and a rover, so it'll be able to focus on multiple aspects of Mars at the same time.

Like, both pieces will study different parts of Mars's atmosphere: The orbiter will focus on charged atoms in the upper atmosphere, and the rover will focus on weather near the ground. Meanwhile, for surface research, the orbiter will handle mapping, while the rover will handle chemical analysis. And for the subsurface research, both the rover and the orbiter will use radar to map the locations and depths of water ice deposits in Utopia Planitia in the northern hemisphere.

These deposits were only discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2016, so with. Tianwen-1, scientists will be able to study them from the ground for the first time. Finally, NASA's Perseverance rover!

It's headed to Jezero Crater, also in the north, where a meandering river once deposited lots of clay and carbonate sediments. On Earth, material like this has preserved some of the earliest signs of life. So Perseverance is going to do a lot of chemical analysis of these Mars rocks, both by taking samples and by remote spectroscopy.

But it's also rocking some experimental tech: Ingenuity and MOXIE. They're both proof-of-concept projects to demonstrate technology that could make future missions more flexible. Ingenuity, for example, is a little autonomous helicopter!

It's super light—it will only weigh about 0.7 kilograms on Mars—and right now, it's pretty bare bones: It just has hardware to guide it, some cameras and sensors, an antenna, a solar panel and batteries, and some blades. Someday, though, a souped-up version could be its own, standalone mission. Or it could act as a scout by flying ahead to collect images.

But right now, we just want to see if it can get off the ground. That's a big engineering challenge, because Mars's atmosphere is so thin that there's barely enough air for a helicopter's blades to push against and get itself airborne. To counter this, Ingenuity has fast, long blades: They're 1.2 meters from tip to tip and spin ten times faster than many helicopter blades on Earth.

The idea is that longer, faster blades can push against more air and generate more lift — and so far, things have gone well in tests. But we'll have to see if it works on Mars itself. Meanwhile, the other tech, called MOXIE, is a tiny oxygen factory inside the rover.

It siphons carbon dioxide from Mars's atmosphere, and uses electricity to split it into oxygen gas and carbon monoxide. Despite what it sounds like, this isn't a plan to siphon all of Mars' CO2 and replace it with oxygen. The goal is just to see if this works.

After all, when we send people to Mars, they're going to have to breathe, and they might also need liquid oxygen to fuel their rockets home... but bringing a giant, heavy oxygen tank isn't really practical. So eventually, they might rely on a bigger version of MOXIE. So like I said, it's a huge year for Mars missions!

Soon, we'll have three countries with three missions teaching us more about the sky, land, and water of our next-door neighbor. It'll be a few months before anyone gets to Mars and the data start pouring in, but we can't wait. And as we learn more, we'll keep you updated.

This week's episode of SciShow Space News is brought to you by none other than our President of Space, Adam Landers! Adam is one of our patrons on Patreon, who make this show possible. So, thanks, Adam!

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