Some are calling it “the summer of Mars”. Three missions from three different countries are headed for the red planet within a month.
The US, China and the United Arab Emirates – a very new player in planetary exploration – are launching Mars missions.
Why, one might ask, considering Mars is considered to be the most-studied planet in our solar system after Earth. The US, the former USSR, Europe, India and Japan have all sent spacecraft to Mars. Russia, China and the UK have also tried.
As it turns out, there are at least two reasons to run missions to Mars today: Symbolism and substance.
With the cost of space launches falling, a Mars mission is a good investment for any country that wants to signal technical prowess and scientific bent on the world stage.
The UAE’s mission – postponed to July 16 because of weather conditions – is a case in point. The Hope spacecraft, to be launched from Tanegashima in Japan, marks the formal start of a space odyssey that could barely have been imagined for a young nation.
The UAE is playing up the symbolic significance of the Mars mission, which was developed in collaboration with several American universities.
The spacecraft’s arrival in 2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s independence from Britain. It will signal a new appetite for science in the Middle East and a reminder that the region was once a leader in science and invention.
As Omran Sharaf, the UAE’s lead on the project, has said, the country’s leaders want science to be “deeply integrated” into the nation’s economy.
The venture has substance too. Hope is designed to keep an eye on Mars’ weather patterns from orbit. It will fill in key gaps in knowledge and improve the UAE’s technological know-how.
China’s mission – with an orbiter, lander and a rover — will also have symbolic significance.
As the country’s first solo mission to Mars, it will signal China’s new confidence and assertiveness. Until now, the US was the only one ever able to land and operate rovers on Mars. With Tianwen-1, meaning “quest for heavenly truth”, China aims to join an elite, exclusive club of technological and scientific great powers.
Mars really is the new moonshot.