Why so Many Missions to Mars this Month?

38.6 Million - 203 - 2.7 Billion. Wondering how these numbers are connected?? Well, I’m glad you asked!

38.6 million miles is how close Mars will be to the earth at the end of July 2020. While this is still quite far, Mars is normally much, much further away. Mars’ typical distance from earth is closer to 50 million miles but with an elliptical solar orbit of 687 days, it creates a window of opportunity roughly every two years when the orbit brings it the closest to the earth. This close proximity makes missions to the Red Planet very attractive for space agencies as it means considerable time savings are available. It is for exactly this reason that three nations are launching their own missions to Mars all in the month of July.

On July 20 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched its Hope Mars mission aboard a Japanese rocket. The orbital probe will perform atmosphere, weather and climate observation with its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, and high-resolution camera. The mission is scheduled to last for one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, and the data sent back will be used to help determine how the Martian surface transitioned from having a warm, wet climate, to a cold, dry, thin atmosphere.

On July 23 China’s first-ever independent mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, will launch aboard a Chinese-developed rocket. The launch craft contains an orbiter, a lander, and a 530-lb. (240 kg) rover. The orbiter carries a radar and camera to measure and map the planet’s morphology, in addition to instrumentation to measure electromagnetic and gravitational fields, and the ionosphere. The rover, China’s second to land on Mars, will operate for 90 Mars days and map soil characteristics and water-ice distribution.

And on July 30, the United States’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed by NASA, is launching a six-wheeled self-driving rover, Perseverance, a twin rotor helicopter, Ingenuity, and an orbiter, MAVEN. Even with Mars’ proximity, it will take 203 days, or seven months, for the landing craft to reach the dusty red surface, and for the $2.7 billion mission to start collecting data next February.

NASA’s current generation of rover on Mars, Curiosity, can follow instructions sent to it, but there is a delay of up to 24 minutes before the operator gets any feedback due to the extreme distance, making live operation impossible and obstacle avoidance very time consuming. Perseverance’s self-driving capabilities were developed to overcome these communications challenges but came with their own development hurdles. Self-driving cars on Earth have powerful, bulky computers to process LIDAR, radar and camera data to make sense of the world around them. Martian rovers don’t have that luxury: they need to be as lightweight as possible and have the added problem of ionizing radiation on the Martian surface, which on Earth is absorbed by the magnetic field and the atmosphere. Perseverance features a specially designed robust microprocessor, capable of withstanding this radiation, and runs highly optimized image process algorithms to enable it to navigate autonomously.

NASA’s uplink from earth to the rover is around 256kbps, and the downlink from the rover, via the orbiter relay, can transmit up to 32kbps. While these speeds may feel glacially slow compared to 5G cellular speeds, they still fill me with awe that it’s even possible to communicate over such a great distance at all, let alone send back beautiful, high-resolution images of the dusty, red surface.

Needless to say, there is no way of sending replacement parts or making repairs once the rocket motors fire and the launch begins. This is the very extreme of ‘mission critical’, where devices must all perform in unison under the harshest conditions. The respective space agencies of UAE, China, and the USA have billions of dollars riding on the success of every single system on board.

These latest missions are astounding in many levels. They present unimaginable opportunities including the ability to support human life in Mars in the future. With every generation of Martian rover: Sojourner, and its successors Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity; we learn ever more about our ‘Solar Neighborhood’. I also think it’s exciting to see new countries beginning to explore the ‘final frontier’. No longer is space solely the domain of Russia and the USA as it has been in the past, but it is becoming ever richer and more diverse, and a growing source of national pride for many nations as well as opportunity for commercial companies. The space domain is becoming ever more accessible to these new entrants as the launch industry is being revolutionized by private companies driving down the cost of getting a satellite to orbit, and beyond.

At Keysight, we celebrate the engineering feats that these missions involve and look forward to the many discoveries and breakthroughs we will see from them. We’re proud to support space innovation and exploration through design and validation tools for space applications to ensure these complex systems work the first time and every time for the duration of these missions. I for one, will be marking my calendar about 203 days from today to see what we discover next.