A Busy Agenda for Mars!


We see our Red neighbor glowing in the sky, hoping it would be our safe refuge as life on Earth faces increasing potential extinction threats, either due to a natural disaster—such as an impact event—or a man-made disaster. This is how decision makers in the countries racing to study Mars and search for life evidence on it think. As early as the first attempts to explain the existence of dry water canals on the surface of Mars in the 1960s, the Red Planet has aroused mankind’s curiosity. On the other hand, some have criticized conducting much research and spending much money on Mars exploration. Let us shed some light on what is taking place and what the scientists are searching for on Mars.

More than 46 automated space missions have been launched to the Red Planet between 1960s and February 2021, when three spacecrafts succeeded to reach it. No other planet in the Solar System has received such a number of missions. This is for four reasons that have remained unchanged since the beginning of the exploration, paving the way to send humans to live on Mars.

The first reason is trying to find evidence of potential life forms on Mars, be it even germs or fungi. This evidence was found on a meteorite found in 1983; proved to be from Mars, it contained bacteria fossils that go back to over 4.5 billion years.

The second reason is the potential of finding water under the crust of Mars. This, too, was confirmed, in addition to the existence of polar ice caps on the planet and considerable amounts of water vapor in its atmosphere.

The third reason is the attempt to understand the puzzling geological formation of Mars. The unique curvy canals strongly suggest that rivers used to run on its surface in the past, and scientists want to understand why they disappeared.

The fourth reason is the confusing atmosphere, which is believed to have resembled that of Earth at some point; again, scientists need to understand what happened to it. How did the pressure level drop over 150 times compared to that of Earth? How do temperatures shift between -80 degrees and 10 degrees? Furthermore, there are winds, hurricanes, and a heterogeneous magnetic field.

Someone might ask: Why should we concern ourselves with such things? A straightforward answer would be as follows: if Venus represents the past of Earth, Mars represents its future. In other words, some day, Venus will be like Earth, and Earth will be like Mars. That is why we need to understand what has happened to Mars, to be able to predict what could happen to our planet. Scientists have not and will not stop at sending automated exploration missions; there are suggestions and serious plans to send humans to Mars. The latest three missions to find their way to Mars are part of the scheme to get there.

The Emirati Hope Probe aims specifically to study the ratios of oxygen and water vapor in Mars' atmosphere. It is equipped with a highly-accurate camera and a spectrometer that instantly analyzes data on different levels of the atmosphere. As for the American Perseverance Rover, it has landed on the surface of Mars to study carefully selected areas, near the dry rivers cliffs. Additionally, a helicopter carries the rover from one place to another on Mars, increasing the opportunities to find evidence of life. The announced aim of China's Tianwen-1, which also reached Mars in February 2021, seems more ambitious than the other two projects. China aims to find places suitable for building camps for humans. Yes, dear reader, it is searching for areas where the geology, after treatment, can allow for cultivation.

As for projects aiming to send humans to Mars, they are so close, probably by 2030s or 2040s maximum. The reason why they are taking so long lies in their complexity, high risks, and high costs of sending humans there. Currently, there are two suggested options for sending humans to Mars: travelling without return, or traveling and returning. Both options entail exciting details that go beyond sending automated missions. Yet, our article ends here, and we invite you to know more in an upcoming article.

This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Winter/Spring 2021 issue.

Cover Image by wirestock on Freepik.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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