The Journey to Mars
Once every 26 months, Mars gets closer to Earth and creates conditions that are optimal for travel to the Martian surface. Within a two weeks period, space explorers take advantage of the opportunity which makes the mission economically viable since it uses the least amount of energy and the shortest transit time.
They call it celestial mechanics. This is where they calculate the distance, time, fuel, and weight to see if the mission is viable. If they miss this opportunity, they will have to send their dreams parking for 2.2 more years which is equal to 1 Mars year before it presents itself again. This made July 2020 be long-awaited since that is the month in which the two-week window falls in. When they say the shortest time, some may think that it refers to a few hours away like the recent demo 2 flight by Space X and NASA to the ISS which took 19 hours one way. This shortest time means six or more months. Some may also think that taking the shortest time will mean traveling in a straight line directly to mars which is also not the case. The spacecraft will be launched and put to orbit around the earth then be drifted outwards increasing the diameter of the orbit until it intersects with Mars. This means that technically speaking, Mars will be closest to Earth on October 13, 2020 which the rockets should be halfway there and the explorers have been working back in time and estimated the best time to launch so that they intersect at the right moment.
There have been previous missions to Mars, around six in total. Some were successful and others disappointed people after a six-month wait. The most common ones are the last two which were launched by NASA. The spacecraft ferried exploration robots called Rovers. One of the last two was the Mars exploration Rover called Opportunity which was Launched on July 7, 2003 and landed on Mars on January 25, 2004. This rover survived the longest compared to its predecessors. It covered a total of 45.16 kilometers within a period of 15 years before it was covered by a dust storm which obstructed its solar panels and made it unable to recharge its batteries. It sent its last communication signal on 10 June 2018.
The recent one that landed after the Opportunity rover is called the Curiosity Rover. It is a big rover the size of a car and it has six wheels, cameras, and several lab components for analyzing the Martian surface. It is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that produces electricity from the decay of radioactive isotopes which powers the rover and generates heat to warm the system during the harsh cod nights in Mars. The power is enough to last it for a minimum lifetime of 14 years before running out. This one was launched on November 26 2011 and landed on Mars on August 6, 2012. The biggest challenge it has experienced is damaging of the wheels due to the rough Martian terrain limiting its movements. Curiosity Rover is still exploring the Martian surface by August 2020.
Enroute through space
As at the writing of this post, there are two other rovers en route to Mars. The first one Is called Tianwen-1, which was launched on July 23 2020 by China and the other one is called Paserverance Rover launched successfully on 30th July, 2020. The Perseverance rover looks the same as Curiosity in size and structure but it has several improvements and additions to it, one of them being the wheels that have been made to be more robust to adapt to the Martian environment. It has several cameras for pictures and video, microphones for audio and scientific research tools.
The rover is equipped with an autonomous navigation system to help it navigate through Mars on its own and it has also carried along a sidekick called Ingenuity which is a robotic helicopter that is planned to perform the first powered flight on another planet. Ingenuity is attached at the bottom of Perseverance Rover and it is planned to make its first flight after landing which will last for 60 seconds. As much as we would like to be the ones to control the drone from Earth, it is impossible since it takes about 20 minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to Mars. On that note, the scientists decided to give the controls to the Perseverance Rover. So technically, a robot will be flying the first drone outside our planet and we will only know how it goes 20 minutes later. The use of the drone will help in mapping of the area and determining the best path for the rover to follow and cover more ground. It is also to test a proof of concept and help engeneers know how to build future aircrafts that can fly on Mars. Guess what Perseverance Rover plans to do in the first 60 seconds of Ingenuity test flight…. Take a selfie.
After landing in style and taking selfies, the rover and its drone will start their main mission to look for signs of ancient life on Mars. They are also set to study Martian rocks and collect samples, transform water and Carbon Dioxide into liquid Oxygen for sustaining life of future astronauts traveling to Mars and also Oxygen for combustion fuel for a return ticket to earth.
Here is the live position of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover traveling to Mars.