Spring Break on Mars?

The Multinational Traffic Jam on the Red Planet

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission will drop into orbit around the red planet Thursday, 18 February 2021 on an exciting mission to search for signs of ancient microbial life. Perseverance will also characterize the planet’s geology and climate, select rock and sediment samples, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon. But Perseverance won’t be alone.

The United Arab Emirates’ Mars Mission Al Amal (Hope) is scheduled to reach Mars orbit 9 February, and China’s National Space Administration’s Tianwen 1 (Quest for Heavenly Truth 1) is scheduled to drop in on 10 February. So much for the newcomers. The three spacecraft join seasoned campaigners like NASA’s 23-year veteran Mars Global Surveyor, 20 year veteran Mars Odyssey, 14-year veteran, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and seven-year veteran Maven, not to mention six year veteran Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbital Mission – years in orbit—decades even—and still “ticking”

Al Amal will negotiate an elliptical orbit between 1,000 and 50,000 kilometers before easing into an operational orbit between 20,000 and 43,000 kilometers. Billed as the very first weather satellite on Mars, Al Amal will analyze the Martian atmosphere, weather, and climate.

Perseverance and Tianwen 1 are combination orbiters, landers, sky cranes, and wheeled rovers. Although last to the party in orbit, Perseverance will arrive first on the planet’s surface, protected by a heat shield, slowed by parachutes, and lowered to the ground tethered to a rocket-powered sky crane. In addition to searching for signs of ancient microbial life and stacking core samples for eventual return to Earth, Perseverance will deploy its solar powered helicopter Ingenuity, and MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) to test options for producing oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere.

The Tianwen-1 mission will continue in orbit, mapping, surveying, and imaging potential landing sites until May, when the lander and rover will separate from the orbiter, and using parachutes, retrorockets, and airbags, soft-land in the Utopia Planitia impact basin.

The three orbiters won’t be alone high above the red planet, and the two wheeled rovers won’t be alone on the surface itself.  NASA’s Curiosity rover is still mobile, rolling up and down crater rims, and their InSight lander continues its scientific missions.

From pole to pole and from crater to crater, Mars is literally littered with the remains of rovers and landers that either crashed, or were rendered inoperable on landing, like the USSR’s Mars 2, Mars 3, and Mars 6 descent modules, NASA’s Polar Lander, and the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2. Some, like NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2, Sojourner, Spirit, Phoenix, and Opportunity, were successfully retired after exceeding projected lifespans.  

Not quite Spring Break, but still, that is a lot of stuff up there. Hollywood script writers cranking out Sci-Fi yarns about Mars like to speculate about stranded astronauts using derelict landers as lifeboats, shelters, or sources of oxygen until help can arrive. And it’s not a bad idea. But the disparate power sources, successive technologies (some of the earlier probes actually had vacuum tubes), and non-standard couplers, motherboards, computer codes, and control consoles make such conceits impractical.

The summer of 2020 was a great time for missions from Earth to Mars, with celestial mechanics placing the two planets in optimum positions. Theoretically, a spacecraft can be launched anytime, if fuel and time are not an issue – but ideal orbit trajectories that conserve fuel and reduce transit times to Mars reoccur every 26 months. Spacecraft don’t point at Mars, but rather head to where Mars will be. The trick is for the spacecraft to arrive at Mars orbit just as the planet arrives at that same location.

Yep. Mars is a busy place nowadays, and likely to get a lot busier.

China will certainly be back, as their space program progresses from “landing, orbiting, and returning,” to “surveying, constructing, and exploiting.” Japan plans to launch their Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) sample return mission by 2024 and return samples to Earth by 2031. SpaceX is also targeting 2024 for Starship Mars launches.

If NASA is able to stay the course, their next launch (Future Mars Mission) isn’t scheduled until July of 2026, that is, if the Biden administration doesn’t cut their funding. A partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), Future Mars Mission is designed to retrieve the core samples so patiently acquired and stacked up by Perseverance. Future Mars Mission has a lot of moving parts: a NASA-led Sample Return Mission that would launch the samples into Mars orbit, and an ESA-led Earth Return Orbiter that would rendezvous with the samples in Mars orbit and bring them back to Earth. The plan is for NASA to launch their lander, following by the ESA’s launch of their Earth Return Orbiter two months later. NASA’s lander would land near Perseverance in Jezero crater in October 2027, delivering an ESA-designed “fetch” rover that will pick up the stacked samples, return them to the lander, and be launched back into orbit. The ESA Earth Return Orbiter reaches Mars in August of 2028, picks up the samples, and returns to Earth, splashing down sometime in 2031. A backup plan would just have Perseverance (if it is still operating) trundle over to the lander and load it up, without the need for an additional rover.

The dynamics of Mars colonization are shifting into unexpected directions. A robust state space program is essential in projecting national security strategies, as well as advancing economic hegemony. China gets it. Japan gets it. The ESA gets it. Even India, and the United Arab Emirates gets it. Sadly, the United States of America has locked NASA into cycles of feast and famine as successful Republican administrations are forced to repair NASA budgets and resolve following Democrat administration sabotage.

When Barack Obama shut down NASA’s manned space exploration programs, the only route to space for U.S astronauts was onboard Soviet spacecraft. President Trump reestablished the National Space Council, reinvigorated NASA, stood up the U.S. Space Force, and empowered commercial crew launch capabilities (SpaceX). If the Biden-Harris administration follows Obama’s “lead,” America’s national space program may never regain lost ground.

“We” will still get to Mars, but in an era when commercial partnerships can purchase or rent a launch vehicle from say, SpaceX, a lander from, say Blue Origin, a “Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform” from, say, Lunar Outpost, or even human habitat modules from, say Foster and Partners, the dominant language on the red planet maty well be Chinese.

Is it important which Earth nation dominates Mars? China thinks so.

has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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