2021 was a busy year for the Red Planet with three missions arriving in February.
The first mission to arrive on 9 February was the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, the nation’s first planetary mission. The spacecraft’s goal is to study the past and present climate of Mars from orbit. Unlike previous missions from other space agencies, which would only look at specific locations at the same time, Hope will look at changes throughout the day. Over time it will monitor Mars’s daily, monthly and yearly changes to build up a comprehensive image of what the weather is like on the Red Planet.
The next arrival – Tianwen-1, belonging to the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) – reached Mars a day later, on 10 February. The spacecraft spent its first few months at Mars surveying the surface from orbit, reconnoitring for the next stage of the mission: setting down the Zhurong rover. The CNSA eventually selected a site in the large Utopia Planitia and successfully touched down on 22 May. The main goal of the mission was a test of China’s ability to operate on the surface of Mars, paving the way for future visits.
But, back on 18 February – before the Tianwen-1 mission had located a landing site for the Zhurong rover – the last, and largest, of the three missions arrived at Mars, in the form of NASA’s Perseverance lander. It contains a suite of instruments dedicated to drilling and storing rock samples from the Martian surface. Its progress has been aided by a spacecraft that hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance: the Ingenuity Helicopter. The small drone-like rotocraft is a technology demonstration mission, intended to see if it’s possible to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere, the answer to which is a comprehensive ‘yes’. Since its first 39-second test flight on 19 April, Ingenuity has flown over a dozen times, travelling more than 2km.
So what did we learn at Mars last year? The UAE learned how to orbit, China learned how to land, and NASA learned how to fly.