Maybe 16 – Maybe More, Maybe Less

I have developed an interest in other nations’ efforts in space recently, and I was pleased to read that China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, with its lander and rover payload (see previous blog entries) started its next mission phase by entering Mars orbit on February 10, 2021 – only two days ago as I write.

I’m glad I’m not a professional space pundit, as I had failed to notice (or blog) that another Mars mission was underway. The Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter belonging to the Emirates Mars Mission from the UAE entered Mars orbit on February 9th – the day before Tianwen-1. Al-Amal was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center (Japan) on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries rocket in July 2020, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice. The Emirates Mars Mission will study the Martian climate its extreme climate changes. It will also try to find out why Mars leaks hydrogen and oxygen into space. (I didn’t know that it was, so there’s something new).

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Public Domain – Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Not to be forgotten (as if we want to), is the United States’ Mars 2020 mission, which also took advantage of the launch window which opened in July 2020. Mars 2020 will land the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter/drone on the Martian surface. The idea of a small drone helicopter being flown over the surface of Mars is mind-boggling to say the least. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet, so we may see a little history made some time in the Spring.

An artist’s impression of Ingenuity standing on the surface of Mars as the Perseverance rover rolls away. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built and will manage operations of Perseverance and Ingenuity for the agency. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Ingenuity, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter. For more information about the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/perseverance. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Public Domain)

At the moment there are perhaps 16 artificial satellites in orbit around Mars. Mars 2020 will make it 17 assuming everything goes well. Eight orbiters are no longer functional and a few may see their orbits decay resulting in their destruction between 2022 and 2046. One, the unfortunate NASA Mars Climate Orbiter of 1999, never made it to the planet’s surface, either burning up in Mars’ atmosphere, or skipping off into its own orbit around the Sun following a programming error in its software.

Of the functional probes, one, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, (launched, as you may guess in 2001) has the distinction of being the longest active orbiting satellite anywhere except Earth. The status of the Soviet probes Mars 2, 3, 5 and Phobos 2, is unknown. Mars 2 and 3 were launched in the Summer of 1971 at the same time as NASA’s Mariner 9, 4 years before the two NASA Viking missions.

India’s ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) has had a satellite in orbit around Mars since 2014. The Mars Orbiter Mission is described as a technology demonstrator, and was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh in November 2013. It is a remarkable feat. India undertook the first Asian mission to Mars, and furthermore became the first nation in the world to achieve success on its maiden attempt. This feat has only recently been matched by Al-Amal from the UAE.

So the skies above Mars may be looking a little more busy in the weeks and months ahead. I look forward to seeing images of the Ingenuity taking its first hops from the surface of another planet some time in the Spring of 2021.

Another little awareness raising touch which I couldn’t resist is connected with the NASA Mars 2020 Mission. The “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign resulted in 10.9 Million people registering their names with NASA. Those names are recorded on the three silicon chips you can see on the top left of the placard. NASA also announced that the probe would be named by votes received in a student naming contest. Perseverance was announced to be the winning name in March 2020.

Considering all the bad things that came to us in March 2020, it’s heartwarming to see that something nice did happen too.

A placard commemorating NASA’s “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign was installed on the Perseverance Mars rover. Three silicon chips (upper left corner) were stenciled with 10,932,295 names and the essays from 155 finalists in NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest. (NASA – Public Domain)