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The rush to Mars in 2020

MARS BUFFS can expect a thrilling 2020. Taking advantage of the biennial approach between Earth and Mars, the space agencies of America, China, Europe and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all plan launches of unmanned Martian rovers. Each mission is fuelled by thirst for knowledge. But each also showcases ambitions of a more worldly sort.

NASA, America’s agency, already drives robots on Mars, but its Mars 2020 rover will carry a helicopter drone. Successful flight in Mars’s thin atmosphere would earn the country that invented aeroplanes the additional honour of being first to fly an extraterrestrial aircraft. Its imagery will also surely enthrall.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has yet to land on Mars. Its first attempt, with a craft named Schiaparelli, crashed in 2016, creating a blackened crater that was photographed by a NASA spacecraft orbiting the planet. This time America and Russia are assisting, but ESA will handle the landing of its rover (pictured), Rosalind Franklin, named after a pioneering British scientist involved in discovering the structure of DNA. Europe must show it can do that part on its own, says Pietro Baglioni of ESA, who is the team leader of the rover’s mission.

China’s first Mars mission came to a fiery end in 2012 when the Russian spacecraft on which it had piggy­backed failed to leave Earth orbit. That is why China will handle the launch of HX-1, as its next Mars attempt has been named, says Lan Tianyi, head of a Beijing space consultancy called Ultimate Blue Nebula. Still, the country professes to be keen on collaboration. Wu Yanhua, deputy head of China’s space agency, talks loftily of building “a community of human destiny” through the world’s space endeavours, with the help of “Chinese wisdom”.

The UAE’s Mars mission has been developed with American partners and will launch on a Japanese rocket. But it will still be an interplanetary first for the Arab world. Ahmad bin Abdullah Humaid Belhoul Al Falasi, chairman of the UAE Space Agency, has lauded the mission as a historic Arab achievement that “will restore the glory of our forefathers”.

As for scientific rewards, the UAE’s probe, dubbed Hope, will use ultraviolet spectrometry to study Mars’s atmosphere and understand how and why hydrogen and oxygen escape into space. A gizmo on NASA’s rover that “breathes like a tree” will convert abundant atmospheric carbon dioxide into currently scarce oxygen that future astronauts could breathe or use to make rocket fuel. A drill on ESA’s rover will extract rock from an unpre­cedented two metres below the surface in the delta of a former river. The samples will be crushed and heated in a carousel of ovens to produce gases that may reveal signs of current or ancient microbial life. China’s rover will use ground-penetrating radar to seek ice pockets.

The space schedule for 2020 may also include the maiden launch of NASA’s SLS, the world’s biggest rocket. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin may begin commercial suborbital flights for wealthy thrill-seekers. But it is ESA’s launch of a solar probe, scheduled for February 2020, that could prove to be of greatest import for Earthlings.

Solar Orbiter will be put into an elongated orbit that takes it close to the sun every five months. Instruments behind peep-holes in its heat shield will seek correlations between that star’s internal rumblings and its periodically fierce ejections of charged particles. These could knock out electrical grids and computers on Earth, potentially plunging entire continents into chaos and conflict. One such “coronal mass ejection” blew across the orbit of Earth in 2012, missing the planet by just a few days.

Solar Orbiter should be thought of as a form of “planetary defence”, says Ian Walters of Airbus, the craft’s European maker. Its data will help with the development of models that might allow an incoming burst of electronics-frying particles to be foreseen a few days before they strike Earth. Electrical grids and other equipment, he says, might then be temporarily switched off or otherwise protected. True, this lacks the glamour of exploring Mars, but it may be the noblest mission of 2020.

Benjamin Sutherland