Landers and orbiters on and around Mars are increasing but why so many this year?This page will help you understand why scientists need to send spacecraft to the red planet at certain times, what they want to study and how this will help us find out so much more about Mars than we know already.
Have a go at building your own rover and helicopter.
Mars is a long way from Earth and the distance between Mars and Earth is forever changing. This makes it more difficult to send spacecraft to the red planet – you cannot do it any time you want.
The reason why the distance is forever changing is because both planets orbit the Sun at different speeds. Earth travels faster than Mars at an average 30 km/s (about 67,000 mph) and Mars travels slower than Earth at an average 24 km/s (about 53,700 mph). This is because Mars is further from the Sun. Being further from the Sun also means Mars has further to travel than Earth to make one complete orbit around the Sun. One complete orbit is known as one year. One year on Earth takes 365.25 days and in that time it travels 940 million km. One year on Mars takes 687 days and in that time it travels 1,429 million km.
So many numbers! How does this affect space travel to Mars? At its closest Mars is about 55.4 million km away from Earth and at its furthest it is 400.2 million km away. That’s a big difference! Closest and furthest approaches occur about once every 26 months. The last closest approach was in 2020 but it wasn’t as close as 55.4 million km it was more like 62 million km away. That’s because the orbits of both Mars and Earth are ellipses (oval shaped) and not circular. You can find out more about elliptical orbits in our Astronomy Glossary.
Anyway, if you want to send a spacecraft all the way to Mars you will have to think about when you need to launch your rocket. The journey needs to be efficient on fuel; too much fuel means you need a more powerful rocket to lift off from Earth. This means you want to travel the least distance possible. But you cannot go in a straight line; remember Mars and Earth are orbiting around the Sun so you have to work out where Mars will be in its orbit when the spacecraft reaches the planet not when the spacecraft launched. Watch this NASA video to find out more. If all goes well, you'll get to Mars in about seven or eight months.
After being launched on 19 July 2020 'Hope' entered orbit around Mars on 9 February 2021. Its mission is due to last for 2 years. It doesn’t have a lander but its orbital path around the Red Planet will mean that scientists will be able to look at more of the planet than ever before.
Hope will study daily and seasonal weather cycles, weather events in the lower atmosphere such as dust storms, and how the weather varies in different regions of the planet. It will also attempt to find out why it is losing hydrogen and oxygen into space and other possible reasons behind its drastic climate changes.
To achieve the scientific objectives of the mission, the Hope probe is equipped with three scientific instruments
1. A very high spec camera capable of taking high resolution images across the ultra violet and visible wavelengths. This will be able to measure properties of water, ice, dust, aerosols and abundance of ozone in Mars's atmosphere.
2. An interferometric thermal infrared spectrometer which will examine temperature profiles, ice, water vapour and dust in the atmosphere. The spectrometer will provide a view of the lower and middle atmosphere.
3. A far-ultraviolet imaging spectrograph that measures emissions in the spectral range 100–170 nm to measure global characteristics and variability of the thermosphere, and hydrogen and oxygen coronae.
After being launched on 23 July 2020 Tianwen-1 entered orbit around Mars on 10 February 2021. Tianwen means "quest for heavenly truth." The mission consists of an orbiter, deployable camera, a lander and a rover (Dimensions, Rover: 2.6 × 3 × 1.85 metres). The orbiter has a planned 2 year mission and the lander is due to last 90 Martian days on the surface of the planet. One Martian day lasts 24 hours and 37 minutes. The camera was deployed in September 2020. It is a small satellite with 2 cameras and tested Wi-Fi connection with the spacecraft.
The objectives of Tianwen-1 are to search for evidence of both current and past life, and to assess the planet's environment, producing surface maps, characterizing soil composition and water ice distribution, and examining the Martian atmosphere, in particular its ionosphere.
The orbiter will spend the next few months scanning the surface to refine the target landing zone for the rover, which is planned to occur in May or June 2021. It will approach the surface of Mars to within about 265 km and its high-resolution camera will then take images of the planned landing area in Utopia Planitia. These images will be sent back to Earth so scientists can map the landing site selecting the best place to land.
Tianwen-1 will also store rock and soil samples for retrieval by a later sample-return mission.
The Scientific instruments aboard the space craft include:
On the Orbiter
On the Rover
After being launched on 30 July 2020 Perserverance is due to land on the surface of Mars in the Jezero Crater on 18th Feb. The mission consists of a rover with a planned one Martian year timeline 668 sols (687 Earth days). While this particular launch did not include an orbiter Perserverance will communicate with Earth via existing orbiters: the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the ESA Mars Express.
Perseverance, is based on the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover. It is car-sized, about 3 meters long (not including the arm), 2.7 meters wide and 2.2 meters tall. It has seven scientific instruments to study the Martian surface at Jezero crater and carries several cameras and two microphones. The rover is also carrying the helicopter Ingenuity, which is an experimental aircraft meant to establish if flight is feasible in the Martian atmosphere.
The Perseverance rover has four science objectives:
There are also a number of cameras, and for the first time on a Mars probe, two audio microphones will be used during the landing event, while driving, and when collecting samples.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars. The helicopter rode to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Once the rover reached a suitable "helipad" location, it released Ingenuity to the surface on the 6th April so it could perform a series of test flights over a 30-Martian-day experimental window. Thankfully Ingenuity managed to survive the extremely cold -90 degree C temperatures during the Mars nights.
The first flight was successfully performed on April 19, 2021.
For the first flight, the helicopter took off, climbed to about 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground, hovered in the air briefly, completed a turn, and then landed. It was a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, and, in fact, the first such flight in any world beyond Earth. After that, the team planned additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude. After the helicopter completes its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its scientific mission.
Ingenuity has completed the following milestones: