NASA – Reaching for Mars

Posted On: January 20, 2020
NASA at Cape Canaveral, FL, USA
NASA at Cape Canaveral, FL, USA

When Apollo 11’s lunar module landed on the Moon in July 1969, many have thought the Earth-Moon flights may become common for mankind. However, humans haven’t visited the Moon since 1972. 2020 is a year that brings us closer to new space-conquering missions.

NASA’s Artemis program plans to send the first woman astronaut on the Moon, in 2024, while space agencies from China and Europe are working on their own plans to leave their footprint on the Moon’s surface. This new decade promises new exhilarating space news, as well as new launches for Mars.

One of the most explored bodies in our system solar, Mars proves to be a challenge the humankind is eager to overcome. 2020 brings a favorable alignment between Mars and Earth that reduces the distance between them and favors the July’s launch of NASA’s new rover.

The first steps

The Soviet space program was the first program to put a spacecraft into Martian orbit back in 1971. Mars 3 provided eight months of data regarding Mars’ weather, topography, and atmosphere. The mission’s lander managed to touch the planet’s surface, but 20 seconds later the communication went dark.

NASA’s Mariner 9 took the research further with a mapped surface, an accurate topography, and many more images of this cold and dusty planet. It also raised new questions and added more mystery to what we knew about Mars. Between 1976 and 1982, Viking 1 and 2, a pair of orbiter/lander missions have returned valuable data about Mars, captured intriguing photos, and even conducted biological experiments on Martian soil.

In 1996, the Mars Pathfinder mission took a free-moving rover vehicle, Sojourner, on the deserted planet. The rover traveled freely and returned valuable scientific data, including chemical soil analyses and weather information.

The present

In March 1999, NASA sent the Mars Global Surveyor to orbit the planet in search of new insights. The orbiter has been studying and mapped Mars’ surface ever since, offering information about the planet’s seasons, weather, and curious dust storms.

However, the missions that have captured the world’s attention are undoubtedly the ones bravely executed by NASA’s exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers have landed on Mars in January 2004, and have taken upon themselves to carry on extensive exploration missions. Since their arrival, Spirit and Opportunity have sent back home over 100,000 high-resolution images, as well as reports regarding Mars’ soil and rocks. And they’re still active, even though their operational period was initially set to only 90 days.

The famous Curiosity rover landed on Mars on August 6, 2012. A next-generation rover, Curiosity landed in the Gale Crater and returned valuable new data, including information regarding the presence of organic material on the planet’s surface, data that has revolutionized what we knew about Mars and brought hope to humankind.

The future

NASA’s next Mars mission will start in July 2020. The Mars 2020 rover will take off on the Atlas V rocket with the mission to land in the planet’s Jezero crater on February 18, 2021. Measuring 28 miles, the crater was once home to an ancient river delta and may hold important data related to Mars’ ancient biological past. Mars 2020 will focus on astrobiology studies and build on the information provided by Curiosity that found proof of microbial life dating back to billions of years ago.

Mars 2020 is equipped with a drill to collect rock and soil samples and has the possibility to store them in a cache on Mars’ surface to be taken to Earth on a future mission. Mars 2020 will also test the oxygen production in the Martian atmosphere, as well as search for bio-signatures in rocks, known for their capability to preserve signs of life.

In other words, Mars 2020’s mission is to seek for signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past and gather information useful for the future human expeditions on Mars. The rover will test a method for producing oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere, as well as contribute to improving landing techniques, Moreover, it will assess the potential environmental conditions that astronauts will have to face in the future.

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