2020: invasion on Mars | Science

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This year, for a few weeks, Mars and Earth will be aligned. The distance between the two will be the minimum – just 54 million kilometers – something that will not happen again until 2022. That is why in 2020 there is an unprecedented event since the end of the Cold War: the launch of four robotic missions to this planet , three of them headed by the main space powers, the USA, Europe and China, who intend to successfully pose their own exploration vehicles with the intention of being the first to find signs of life.

“This is something never seen,” explains Ken Farley, chief scientist of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, who points out that the orbiter launched by India and the “growing enthusiasm” of companies must be added to the projects mentioned above. private as Space X to reach this planet.

Mars is a huge graveyard of rugged ships. One in two space missions try to arrive they fail. Perching on Mars requires a devilish maneuver to slow down the 21,000 kilometers per hour that the ship reaches to zero in just seven minutes, with hardly any help from the Martian atmosphere, much finer than the Earth’s, and at the mercy of the time that day do on this inhospitable planet where it is not uncommon to reach minimums of 100 degrees below zero.

An engineer works on NASA's Mars 2020 vehicle.
An engineer works on NASA’s Mars 2020 vehicle.

In 2016, the ExoMars ship was hit by a violent gust of high wind. The ship moved like a huge pendulum, as it still had the parachute moored and its altitude sensors suddenly pointed to the horizon instead of the surface. The on-board computer interpreted that the ship had landed, turned off the retro-rocket early and ExoMars crashed into the icy Martian soil.

That mission was a demonstrator of the landing technology that ExoMars 2020 should now use, the mission of the European Space Agency homologous to the US. Those responsible for the European mission do not see the accident as a failure and believe they have learned and solved the problem.

The three missions mentioned plus the fourth, the orbiter Hope of the United Arab Emirates, developed thanks to the collaboration of US scientists, have very similar launch windows that begin in mid-July and end in mid-August. It will take seven months to reach the red planet, so the landings are scheduled for February 2021.

“Our main objective is to look for traces of life on Mars more than 3.5 billion years ago, when liquid water covered much of the planet,” explains Ken Farley. NASA’s mission will land at the bottom of an ancient lake several hundred meters deep called Jezero crater. “In a place like this, microbes like those on Earth could have lived without problems,” says this geochemistry expert at the California Institute of Technology.

Another objective of the US is to pave the ground to send astronauts to the red planet. At this point Spain has an important role, as it leads the MEDA instrument, the meteorological station on board the exploration vehicle that measures temperature, wind, dust particles and radiation and that will serve to estimate the habitability of the planet for future astronauts. Another instrument is an oxygen detector, a key element to make Martian air breathable and to build fuel for rockets that take off from Martian soil to Earth in the future.

“The most novel thing about the US and European mission is that they carry a new generation of Raman based spectrometers that are capable of detecting remote biomarkers,” explains Jorge Pla-García, an astrophysicist at the Astrobiology Center in Madrid, who participates in the mission American and has collaborated with the European. These are chemical compounds that may be due to the presence of current or past life. At this point Europe can have an advantage, Pla-García acknowledges, since his vehicle is the only one that has a drill that penetrates up to two meters into the Martian soil. “This is the most feasible place for something alive to exist, because on the surface everything is fried not only by radiation, but by the abundance of salts with chlorine, which is the material we use on Earth to kill microbes,” he explains. the investigator.

China, the third Martian passenger, has never been able to travel there before. The space progress of the communist country has been overwhelming and has demonstrated its ability to achieve things that had never been achieved before, such as posing a rover on the hidden face of the Moon. Its mission to Mars Huoxing-1 includes an orbital module, another landing and a small rover whose main asset is a powerful radar capable of penetrating the Martian subsoil to reveal its composition and that, on the Moon, allowed to discover an ancient ocean of wash. “If it were any other country, I would think that they will not be able, but I believe anything about China. You just have to think that in 2019, for the second year in a row, they are the country that has made the most space launches in the whole world ”, highlights Pla-García.

In the mind of the three countries is the idea of ​​bringing a piece of Mars to Earth. The American rover carries an instrument that can encapsulate the most interesting samples and preserve them so that a future mission yet to be detailed can pick them up and bring them back to Earth. Both the US and China want to try before the end of the decade and Europe and the US are already collaborating on a mission of this kind that would be launched in 2026, explains Ken Farley. Everyone is aware that the first known Martians can travel in these samples.

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