Space race heads to Mars — Four missions plan to explore Earth's closest neighbour in July this year

Space race heads to Mars — Four missions plan to explore Earth's closest neighbour in July this year
Four space exploration missions are heading to Mars in July 2020NASA
  • Mars is humanity’s ‘back up’ plan in case the Earth were ever to become uninhabitable.
  • This year, four different missions plan to explore the Red Planet for signs of life and the potential for human colonisation.
  • All then plan to launch during the July window when Mars will be at least closest to Earth.
Mars is humanity’s back-up plan. If the Earth were ever to become inhabitable, the contingency plan is to colonise our next-door neighbour. But before that’s possible, scientists need more information.

The space race is going forward full-throttle with four space missions — by four different countries — scheduled to launch in July this year. All of them with the singular objective to study Mars, and the potential it holds for human habitation.

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Space race heads to Mars — Four missions plan to explore Earth's closest neighbour in July this year
Artist's illustration of what human colonisation of Mars would look like in its early daysNASA

Why July?

Mercury may be the closest planet to every other planet in the solar system, but Mars stays closest to Earth for the longest time period. The two planets are closest to each other every 26 months — an event that’s called the Mars Close Approach. From Earth, it’s when Mars appears brightest in the sky.

At its closest, Mars is approximately 54.6 million kilometres away. Yet, not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, it was less than 56 million kilometres from Earth — the closest it’s ever been in 60,000 years and won’t be again until the year 2287.

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The Red Planet’s last close approach was in 2018 when it was 57.6 million kilometres away. This year in July, it will be even further — approximately 62.07 million kilometres away, which is over 161 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Nonetheless, astronomers are excited because it’s the closest Mars will be to Earth for another 26 months.

Here are the missions that plan to take advantage of Mars Close Approach in July to study the Red Planet:
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​Mars 2020 — The first helicopter to fly over another planet​

​Mars 2020 — The first helicopter to fly over another planet​

After Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to launch Mars 2020 — a newer and upgraded rover to explore the Red Planet.

Even though it doesn’t yet have a name, NASA revealed that the rover is going come equipped with its own helicopter. It will be able to conduct its own little exploratory missions on the planet by flying over the surface.

If successful, the helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air object to fly on another planet.

The rover is carrying new technology to help test ways of using the existing resources on Mars to support human colonisation — or at least improve designs for life support and transportation.

​Hope Mars Mission — The UAE’s first tryst with space beyond Earth’s orbit

​Hope Mars Mission — The UAE’s first tryst with space beyond Earth’s orbit

Unlike NASA, the United Arab Emirates has no plans on actually landing on Mars. This will be the gulf country’s first mission beyond Earth and they plan on putting an orbiter around the Red Planet.

Scientists believe that Mars was once just as abundant as Earth with plenty of water to go around. But somehow, life never took hold. The Hope orbiter’s objective is to help provide some answers with the first ‘truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere’.


The ultraviolet spectrometer — the main instruments onboard — will measure oxygen, hydrogen and other gases as they escape. The UAE Space agency claims that this will help astronomers better understand how the planet’s atmosphere works and whether or not it will, once again, be fit to support human life.
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​ExoMars — Looking under the Red Planet’s surface

​ExoMars — Looking under the Red Planet’s surface

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos are collaborating to send their own rover to Mars. As NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will fly above the Red Planet’s surface, ExoMars will drill below the surface.

This will be the first time that anyone will go as deep as 2 meters below Mars’ surface to find out what lies underneath — and it’s on the hunt for signs of life.

The rover will drill into the planet’s crust, collect samples and then bake them at temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celcius to 30 single-use ovens. If anything that alive gets charred in the process, the resulting vapours will be smelly enough to let ExoMars know.

​China plans to explore Mars the Chandrayaan 2 way

​China plans to explore Mars the Chandrayaan 2 way

India’s second mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan 2, deployed an orbiter, rover and lander to explore the lunar surface and its origins. China has similar plans for Mars. Its Huoxing-1 mission plans to launch in July with three different modules.

It will be carrying an orbiter which will circle the planet and eventually drop a lander onto the Mars’ surface, which will release a rover to explore the Red Planet’s terrain.

The rover will study the Martian topography and the environment but it also has another primary objective — to search for possible signs of life.

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