Earthlings have sent three separate missions to Mars which will all reach the Red Planet within the next few days.
One of them was sent by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is scheduled to land on 18th February 2021.
NASA’s spacecraft carried the Perseverance Rover (main illustration), a wheeled robotic vehicle which sports a robotic arm built by Motiv Space Systems, whose CEO Robotics and Automation News interviewed in September last year. (See video below.)
Additionally, NASA’s mission includes a drone-like helicopter called Ingenuity (illustration below).
Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth.
Ingenuity also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity doesn’t carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.
Another mission was launched around the same time by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The Tianwen-1 mission has already got its robotic spacecraft to Mars and is orbiting the Red Planet as we speak.
The CNSA will attempt to land its rover (picture below) in late May, 2021.
The third mission was launched by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency, a newbie in the space sector, but which has also successfully entered its spacecraft (illustrated below) into Mars’ orbit.
Unlike the US and China missions, the UAE project does not include landing a rover.
All of the missions involve sending robotic spacecraft to our nearest planet, with human missions planned by NASA but a distant dream at the moment because of length of the journey and the physical demands it would make on human bodies.
For one thing, astronauts would encounter three different gravity fields on a Mars mission:
- On the six-month trek between the planets, crews will be weightless.
- While living and working on Mars, crews will be in approximately one-third of Earth’s gravity.
- Finally upon returning home, crews will have to readapt to Earth’s gravity.
Transitioning from one gravity field to another is trickier than it sounds. It affects spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, with some crew members experiencing space motion sickness.
It is because of these challenges, NASA and other space agencies are only considering robotic missions to Mars for the foreseeable future.
And because there is such a growing interest in space, not least from the industrial and business sectors, the likelihood is that space robotics will continue to grow and become more lucrative for existing robotics companies as well as brand new startups that may emerge over the next decade or two.
But NASA is not giving up sending humans to Mars and its Human Research Program has been studying what happens to the human body in space.
“NASA is taking action on all of these risks and working to solve the challenges of human spaceflight with some of the most brilliant minds in their fields,” says the agency on its website.
“On future longer duration missions to the Moon and Mars, astronauts will benefit from years of research that will ensure they will be able not just to survive, but thrive on their spacefaring missions.”
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