The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California has given the public a front row seat with "Seeing 2020”, a webcam that streams the final assembly and testing stages of the Mars 2020 rover space exploration vehicle. The six-wheeled vehicle, fitted with a drill and other scientific instruments, will explore the red planet for signs of life during NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission.
Artist impression of the Mars 2020 Rover: NASA/JPL
Work at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility’s High Bay 1 Clean Room, where the rover is being assembled, will continue until early 2020. The spacecraft will then be shipped to the Kennedy Space Centre and launched at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July.
Source: mars.nasa.gov (Screenshot)
The Mars 2020 team encourages public to participation in the Seeing 2020 project, with web chats every Monday to Thursday from 11:00.m to 16:00 (PDT).
While the rover is expected to be launched July 17, 2020, it is only expected to land at the Jezero Landing Site around February 18, 2021.
Landing on Mars
Jezero, the chosen landing site, is a crater on the red planet with a 49 km diameter. According to the Mars 2020 Landing Site Steering Committee's co-chairs, John Grant and Matt Golombek, the Jezero site also includes a river delta that extends into the crater. This, they believe, is evidence of a lake that formed more than 3.5-billion years ago when river channels still spilled over the craters edge. NASA researchers say water has filled the crater - and subsequently drained away again - at least twice.
Rocks visible on the surface of the landing site are covered in clay and other materials that would be suitable to preserving microbial life. If there are any signs that life has ever existed on mars, then NASA believes they will likely be found at the bottom of that crater.
Landing on Mars has always been difficult. According to the Planetary Society, there have been more attempted missions to Mars than any other location, except for Earth's own moon.
About half of all attempts to land on the planet have failed. When NASA’s Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Project did the final test on the landing parachute that would deployed on the mission, it was the fastest inflation of a parachute of its size, deploying in four-tenths of a second and breaking the world record.
Who else is trying to get to Mars in 2020?
ESA-Russia ExoMars 2020 lander and rover also aims to answer the question of whether life has ever existed on Mars. ExoMars is also fitted with a drill and equipment that will aid it in its search for any signs of life on the planet.
The mission will launch from Baikonur Launch Complex, located in the semi-arid region of Southern Kazakhstan, between 26 July and 11 Aug 2020. The complex, situated approximately 2 100km from Moscow, is under a 50-year lease to the Russians. It was from this site that Russia launches all its missions, making it the world's oldest launch facility, and to date remains the largest.
The United Arab Emirates will also be launching its Hope Spacecraft, which hopes to explore climate change on Mars. Scientists believe that the thinning of the red planet’s atmosphere couldbe one of the reasons for its dry and dusty nature, turning lakes to desert. This could have occurred that solar wind, a stream of electrically charged particles continuously blowing outward from the Sun, eroded the red planet’s atmosphere and changed its entire climate.
Pic: @SarahAmiri1 (Twitter)
Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri is the lead scientist on the UAE’s Mars mission. In addition to leading the project, she is also the country's Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and the head of its Council of Scientists. She is in charge of developing the mission’s scientific objectives, goals, instrumentation and analysis programmes.
China is also expected to send its China’s HX-1 rover to Mars in mid-2020, as a follow-up to their 2019 mission to the far side of the moon in January.
These dates have not been chosen at random - there is a specific reason why all these missions to Mars plan to launch between July and August 2020. This period is known as "The Launch Window" and researchers make use of this as the time when Mars and the Earth are closest to each other. In taking advantage of this period, which occurs every 26 months, These missions want to take advantage of what is referred to as a launch window - the period when the Earth and Mars are the closest to each other. This window happens once in roughly every 26 months, and missions launched in this time window have less of a distance to travel to their destination.
Source: Creative Commons
To get to Mars is about much more than just the launch - the spacecraft must still find its way out of the Earth's orbit, and then join the orbit of Mars. One way to do this is to use the Hohmann transfer orbit - the most energy efficient way of hopping from one orbit to another.
It's clear that there are many factors to take into consideration before staking on who will win this leg of the space race. But while the public waits for the outcomes of the missions, they can tap into NASA's streams to catch a glimpse at history being made.