On to Mars

Looking beyond Earth’s current troubles, nations are undertaking a flurry of missions to the Red Planet aimed at unlocking its secrets.

NASA via AP/File
Engineers watch the first driving test for the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

When you’ve got troubles, nothing beats stepping back and getting a long-range perspective. In this case, from more than 30 million miles away.

This month three countries plan to send probes to explore Mars, the opening salvo in a space race to the red planet that looks as if it will continue for years to come. The Hope Probe – a project of the United Arab Emirates and the first effort of an Arab nation to visit another planet – is scheduled for launch July 15. China’s Tianwen-1 goes next, sometime between July 20 and July 25. It will be that country’s first visit to the planet. 

The United States, after several delays, plans its launch for July 30, its fifth mission to Mars. 

Russia and the European Union are expected to join this new Mars explorers’ club in a couple of years. India and Japan are planning trips after that. 

Mars beckons in part because it could answer a big question: Are humans alone in the universe? Over its history the planet has shown intriguing potential for life, including, at least at one time, the presence of water. If any life has ever existed there, how likely then is the possibility for life anywhere in a universe filled with uncounted planets?

Mars has long been a fascination – and an intriguing distraction – for humanity. As European relations grew tense and World War I approached a century ago, astronomer William Pickering peered through his telescope and described what he saw as changing weather systems on Mars, which he imaged as a vast wilderness. 

To Pickering, the planet was almost a refuge, “free of suffering and injustice and of difficulty,” points out Sarah Stewart Johnson in her new book “The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World.” It was a place “free from all of the horrible things that were happening in his world, on his planet.”

But even as telescopic views improved, astronomers’ frustration grew: If only they could get a closer, better look. That finally happened in the last half-century as space probes began plunking the Martian surface, sending back data, including photos. The car-sized American rover Curiosity – named by then 12-year-old Clara Ma after a national essay competition – has been wandering the planet since 2012, and continues to explore it.

For the United Arab Emirates and China, visiting Mars means gaining scientific stature back on Earth. For the U.S. it means maintaining its prominent role in space exploration. Each of the missions will advance human knowledge. 

The U.S. rover, named Perseverance, for example, will include a robotic helicopter that will test what it’s like to fly in the Martian atmosphere and, it is hoped, serve as a scout for the rover. Perseverance will also collect rock and soil samples that some future mission would be able to return to Earth.

This flurry of exploration sets the stage for the ultimate Mars endeavor: putting humans on the red planet. That goal remains a couple of decades away at least, U.S. researchers say.

But a visit to the moon by humans once seemed unthinkable. Now Mars is coming ever closer in thought.

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