NASA’s Perseverance rover wasn’t the only newcomer to Mars 12 months ago.
Two other spacecraft also made the trip from Earth to Mars during the last window when the two planets aligned, helping each of their countries get their start in interplanetary exploration.
Exploring a country is no surprise. China is building a portfolio of impressive space missions, including robotic missions to the moon and a space station under construction in Earth orbit. In 2021, its Tianwen-1 mission arrived on Mars with three parts: an orbiter, a lander and a rover named Zhurong.
Months after the mission arrived in Mars orbit, the lander, carrying Zhurong, touched down in the southern part of Utopia Planitia, a volcanic plain. This made China the second country to carry out a sustainable mission on the surface of the Red Planet. Chinese scientists are due to present some of their first scientific results next month at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Woodlands, Texas.
The other country was an unexpected newcomer: the United Arab Emirates. Without much spaceflight experience, he collaborated with engineers from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics to build Hope, a spacecraft the size of a small car.
Hope is smaller in size and ambition than Perseverance or Tianwen-1, but its construction provided on-the-job training for budding Emirati engineers and scientists who worked side-by-side with their American counterparts in Boulder, Colorado.
Hope has entered orbit around Mars and continues to loop around the planet, taking measurements of the atmosphere. He made some unexpected discoveries, including the amount of oxygen in the upper atmosphere.
“When we compared it to the models, it was about 50% higher than expected,” said Hessa al-Matroushi, the mission’s chief scientist. “So it was surprising.”
Hope’s instruments found structures in the upper atmosphere with higher concentrations of oxygen. Scientists are trying to figure out the meaning of surprise.
Another spacecraft, the ExoMars 2022 mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is set to launch to Mars this year. Its launch was originally planned for 2020, but technical problems and the pandemic the mission was postponed. The next launch opportunity opens at the end of September.
ExoMars carries a rover named Rosalind Franklin, which must search for clues of past life in Oxia Planum, a 120-mile-wide plain near the equator that has clay-rich minerals.