Tech Track: Tension on Mars
By Opinion 1h ago
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Dr Kelvin Kemm
THE DATE of February 7 was New Year's Day on Mars. That date officially launched Martian Year 36. The Martian Year is 687 Earth days, so any people who live on Mars in the future will have far fewer New Year's parties. But they will also have fewer annual tax returns. Martian Year number one was started in 1956 after a major dust storm on Mars when the scientists started to watch for annual events.
But there are various excited, but tense Martian celebrations going on now. The reason is: three different spacecraft arriving at Mars. The first to arrive was the Hope spacecraft of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It went into a temporary Mars orbit on February 9. This created much excitement in the UAE since it was their first long-range space mission. Congratulations to them. The UAE craft will not land. It will adjust into a better orbit in about a month and will then carry out metrological examinations for a year.
On the following day a Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1 went into Martian orbit. This makes China the sixth country to reach Mars’ orbit, after the US, Russia, European Space Agency and the UAE. The Chinese craft will park in a Mars orbit while the Chinese team take some deep breaths of relief and pat each other on the back. In a couple of months’ time they will attempt to land a large Lander-Rover pair which is about the size of a car.
They plan to land on a large plain in Mars' northern hemisphere called Utopia Planitia. The orbiter mothership will continue to orbit Mars where it will relay messages from the Rover, which will break away from the Lander when it lands. The Rover carries various scientific gear and ground penetrating radar to look underground for potential pockets of water.
Meanwhile, the Perseverance Rover of the US is still racing towards Mars and is scheduled to touch down on Thursday, February, 18. It will land in the Jezero Crater. The Perseverance Rover has been nicknamed Percy and it also carries a helicopter called Ingenuity. Percy will drive around carrying out various surveys, but will also look for signs of life.
More and more evidence coming back from Mars is showing that there is a distinct possibility of life being found. Don’t expect to find frogs hopping around, but the discovery of living bacteria of some sort would be a major discovery, with philosophical implications for the entire universe.
The Percy scientific team considers the landing as 10 minutes of terror. The reason is that Mars is so far away the signals from Percy take too long to travel back to Earth for earthbound controllers to be able to control anything that is happening. Percy has to carry out the complex landing operation all by itself.
The landing is very complex. At a point an order goes out to land. Then Percy starts to go into a descent racing towards the Martian surface. At a critical height a large parachute is deployed to act as a brake. After a few minutes of this braking the rover drops from the main protective backshell. It is still attached on a long tether and hangs there as the combo descends with the parachute. At a certain point retro-rockets on the backshell will fire to slow down the landing even more.
Close to the ground a set of positioning rockets on the Rover will fire to position the Rover for an exact landing. As the wheels touch the ground the tether will cut itself free and the tether and backshell will be shot away to crash safely some distance away. All that the Earth control room team can do is wait to see if eventually they receive a signal indicating a successful landing. Hence the 10 minutes of terror.
Percy will then be ready to drive away to explore the surface. At some point in the mission the ground team will decide to deploy the helicopter for the first time ever. The pictures which will come back will be astounding.
Each of the three countries involved is using its own complex technology of science, economics, people and procedures to carry out their missions. This is a clear signal of their technological capability.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants. [email protected]
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