Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and general all-round nice chap, has apparently claimed that Russia will launch a presumably uncrewed mission to Mars in 2019. Unfortunately, we regret to inform you (and maybe him) that's a bit of a problem.
Speaking to a TV documentary just days before the Russian presidential election – which we reckon Putin has a decent chance of winning – he revealed a few tidbits about the country’s space ambitions.
“We are planning unmanned and later manned launches – into deep space, as part of a lunar program and for Mars exploration,” he said.
"The closest mission is very soon, we are planning to launch a mission to Mars in 2019."
He didn’t elaborate on those Mars plans, but he did tell us a bit more about the lunar plans. He said they wanted to try landing near the poles “because there are reasons to expect water there.”
The timeline is to land a mission at the Moon’s south pole in 2019, test technology for a base in 2023, and return soil to Earth in 2025. Then they would aim to establish a base on the Moon in the 2040s or 2050s.
That’s all well and good. Plenty of people are looking at going back to the Moon, including the US, Europe, and China. But it’s the Mars comments that really attracted our attention.
Why? Well, you can’t just launch a mission to Mars whenever you want with ease. Owing to the orbits of our two planets around the Sun, there are specific windows when its best to launch, using what’s known as a Hohmann transfer orbit.
These windows open every 26 months, just before Mars is at opposition. This is its closest point to Earth, as little as 56 million kilometers (34 million miles), compared to aphelion, its most distant point, about 401 million kilometers (250 million miles).
The next window opens this May, a few months before opposition, and closes in June. We’ll be seeing one Mars mission, NASA’s Insight lander, making use of this by launching on or after May 5. It’ll take about seven months to get there, landing on November 26 this year.
The next window, however, doesn't open until mid-2020. In 2019, Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun. You can launch outside of these windows, but you'll need a lot more fuel to get there, so it reduces anything useful you can actually take with you. It doesn't make much sense.
Maybe Putin got his dates muddled up. Maybe he’s just making stuff up. Or maybe they really are doing this. Guess we'll have to wait and see.