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Mission Mars 2020: it’s the big day

The Perseverance rover weighs 1,025 kg. It is the heaviest craft ever to go into space. / Photo NASA, JPL-Caltech.

The Mars 2020 mission is scheduled to take off from Foride today at 11:50 am (GMT). The beginning of an adventure: bring back to earth samples of the red planet.

More than ever, this summer 2020 is placed under the sign of Mars since no less than three missions have been scheduled to explore the red planet.

The United Arab Emirates opened the ball rolling on July 19 by sending the first interplanetary Arab probe in history, named « Al-Amal » (« Hope »), to study the atmosphere of the planet. China, whose space ambitions are more and more solid, made its Martian baptism with the mission « Tianwen-1 » (« Questions in the sky »), by sending on July 23 a probe and a small remote-controlled robot.

Perseverance, 9 years after Curiosity

But it is the American mission Mars 2020, which is due to take off today from Cape Canaveral in Florida, which is undoubtedly the most ambitious since it will be a question of collecting samples of Martian soil and bringing them back to Earth during several other missions. A colossal challenge in which Europeans are taking part, with the supply of several key instruments on the new Perseverance rover, Curiosity’s little brother, launched in 2011. The new rover is, in particular, equipped with a SuperCam camera, designed in Toulouse.

This rush for the red planet is not, however, unprecedented: since the 1960s, our closest neighbor has hosted dozens of automatic probes, mostly American, in orbit or on the ground, many of which have failed. And since the 2000s and the discovery proving that liquid water had flowed there, the attraction has increased, and Mars has become the priority for space exploration. A race as scientific as geopolitical, again marked by the Sino-American rivalry.

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“This is the only planet where we have the chance to detect a past life form, and the more knowledge we accumulate, the more promising the place. We feel that something exciting is approaching, and that we must be! », Analyzes Michel Viso, exobiologist at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) to explain the craze around Mars.

The United States, Europe, India, China, the Emirates, and in 2024 Japan which will send a probe to explore Phobos, one of the moons of Mars as with the Moon, each seeking to score points in this quest, to assert itself as a scientific and spatial power. Only the Americans have so far managed to land intact robots on Mars: four landers (fixed), and four rovers (Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, the only one still alive).

The Toulouse SuperCam
The Toulouse SuperCam – © CNES / TRONQUART Nicolas, 2018

All in any case cherish a dream, distant: that of « contributing to the adventure of human exploration on Mars, which represents the ultimate frontier where man can reach, in 20, 30 or 40 years », indicates Michel Viso. The objective of a manned flight on Mars is currently seriously considered only in the United States, the only ones to have launched detailed studies on the feasibility of such an adventure. But with which other nations could join. The Emirates are considering, for example, the construction of a « City of Sciences » reproducing the environmental conditions of Mars with a view to establishing a human colony by 2117 …

We’re not there yet and today – weather permitting – all eyes will be on the Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance, then from February 18, 2021 to the Red Planet where Perseverance will begin its incredible collection.

The return of samples not before… 2031

Perseverance is preparing a moment much awaited by scientists: the return of Martian samples to Earth. The next segment of this incredible objective will be ensured by the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program… Arrival of samples on Earth envisaged in 2031 ”, indicates the Cnes. This is because once the Perseverance rover has collected samples of Martian soil – carrots sealed in tubes and gathered in small groups – they will have to be sent back to earth. In 2026, two missions will depart from Earth for this.
The first mission will be to send to Mars an American SLR lander and a new European rover called Fetch. This will collect 31 tubes collected by Perseverance and then return to its starting point to install the tubes on top of a small Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) rocket in a container the size of a basketball. The challenge for scientists will be to launch this rocket which will place the container in orbit of the red planet.
This is where the second mission will come in: the American-European ERO satellite that it will send to Mars will have to capture the container, which will be secured in a sealed sphere itself installed in a capsule. This orbiter will then begin the long journey back to Earth that it should approach in 2013. It will drop the capsule which should land in the Utah desert. Its contents will be examined in a laboratory as secure as the P4 laboratories. The samples could also be analyzed in a laboratory in Europe.

Par Jules Bercy

A writer a blogger passionate about science, history politics, the general knowledge of our planet and the Universe...

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