NASA’s next Mars rover Perseverance will jet off towards the Red Planet this July, but it won’t be alone. China is gearing up for its first Martian mission this summer too, with the launch of Tianwen-1, which will include an orbiter, lander, and rover. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also launching a Mars mission, an orbiter constructed in collaboration with three US universities.
You might think the skies are getting a little busy, but the apparent crowding is no coincidence. This summer, this year, is the ideal time to travel to Mars from Earth. Due to the relative position of Earth and Mars at the moment of launch and arrival, between July and September this year offers the shortest route, and so will require the least among of energy, to reach the Red Planet. The next launch window with the shortest route to Mars won't be for another 2.5 years. This approach is key in any mission rendezvousing with another celestial body. For Martian missions, the window repeats every 780 days.
Tianwen-1 will consist of an orbiter to study the terrain and magnetic properties of Mars. In its suite of instruments, a high-res camera will produce images with a resolution of 2 meters (6 feet) from a 400-kilometer (250-mile) orbit. Not as sharp as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, although MRO is 25 percent closer to the planet, but the more eyes on the Red Planet the better.
In a similar manner to China's successful Chang’e-4 mission that landed on the far side of the Moon in late 2018, giving us our first-ever pictures taken from there, Tianwen-1 will deliver a lander and a rover to the surface of Mars. The exciting capabilities of this duo include a ground-penetrating radar that will allow researchers to map up to 100 meters (330 feet) below the Martian surface.
The Emirates Mars mission is called Hope (Al Amal in Arabic). It was built by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre together with the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. It will study daily and seasonal changes in the Martian atmosphere, which will hopefully inform us of the ancient history of the planet and how it became such a dry and frigid world.
Perseverance, Tianwen-1, and Hope will reach Mars in early 2021. In this slot, they were supposed to be joined by the Russian-European Rosalind Franklin rover, but its launch has been postponed due to the pandemic, and will now wait for the next ideal window in 2022. Still, that's plenty of science to get excited about in the coming months.