Mars Is The Place To Go This Summer : Short Wave The United Arab Emirates launched a mission to Mars earlier this month, followed by China days later. And tomorrow, NASA is scheduled to launch its own mission to the red planet that includes a six-wheeled rover called Perseverance, as well as a tiny helicopter. Short Wave reporter Emily Kwong talks with NPR's Joe Palca, who explains why these launches are happening now and the goal of the missions when they get there.
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Mars Is The Place To Go This Summer

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Mars Is The Place To Go This Summer

Mars Is The Place To Go This Summer

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Emily Kwong here, SHORT WAVE reporter, keeping the host seat warm for Maddie. Today I've got NPR science correspondent Joe Palca here. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello there.

KWONG: OK, Joe, so you're here to talk about a popular destination right now, feels like everybody's trying to get there. It just happens to be in outer space. I'm talking, of course, about Mars.

PALCA: That's right. If you're planning a visit to Mars, this is the month to go. The United Arab Emirates launched a probe two weeks ago from Japan, and it was its first mission to Mars.

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KWONG: Very cool.

PALCA: And then a few days after that, China sent a mission up to Mars.

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PALCA: And then tomorrow, NASA is expected to launch its mission to Mars from Cape Canaveral in Florida, weather-permitting.

KWONG: Yeah, fingers crossed.

PALCA: Yes. So if the UAE and China missions successfully reach Mars, they'll be joining an elite group. Only the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe and India have actually had successful missions to the red planet.

KWONG: Interesting. And these launches are all happening now because of this short window of time we have to get to Mars, right?

PALCA: Right. So once every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars line up in a way so that you can economically send a probe from one to the other. You could do it another time, but you'd have to build a rocket that was gigantic, enormous, would take forever. So if you want to do it in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of fuel, you need to do it in this window which happens once every two years.

KWONG: OK, so a very long wait.

PALCA: Yeah, but once they get there, oh, boy, are we going to learn a lot about Mars. Woo-ee (ph).

KWONG: Well, your excitement is palpable, Joe Palca. What are we going to get to see on Mars if these missions are successful?

PALCA: Oh, all sorts of stuff. You're going to learn about the geography. They might be finding signs of ancient life. And there's a helicopter on the U.S. mission, so wait for that.

KWONG: All right, today on the show, a roundup of these summer missions to Mars with Joe Palca. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, Joe Palca, we are talking missions to Mars. Let's start with the United Arab Emirates, which launched its probe two weeks ago. As you said, this is the country's first mission to Mars.

PALCA: Yup. And the probe is called Hope, and it will arrive in 2021. And 2021 is a big year for the UAE, as I'm sure you know, Emily Kwong.

KWONG: I do not, Joe Palca, but you are going to tell me why.

PALCA: Yes, I am. Because it's the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE, which was established in 1971. So the Emirati leadership was eager to do something to celebrate, and a mission to Mars seemed like a great idea.

KWONG: Joe, that is a pretty splashy birthday present.

PALCA: Yes, that's what I was hoping for for my 50th birthday, but I didn't get it. But seriously, that's just one of the reasons that they were going to Mars. It's partly to celebrate. But I talked to Sarah Al Amiri, the deputy project manager and science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission.

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SARAH AL AMIRI: The purpose was not only to get to Mars by 2021 and have valid scientific data coming out of the mission that is unique in nature and no other mission has captured before, but more importantly, it was about developing the capabilities and capacity of engineers in the country.

KWONG: Oh, interesting.

PALCA: Yeah, Sarah says the country's leaders wanted the UAE to develop more of a knowledge-based economy, and building a Mars probe provided a focus for expanding the country's technological capabilities.

KWONG: OK, so Sarah mentioned the unique nature of this mission. Joe, tell me about the probe and what it is designed to do.

PALCA: Yeah, it's about the size of a small car. It weighs about a ton and a half, and it has these solar panels that look like wings, essentially. And when they're spread out, it's about 24 feet wide. And when it goes to Mars, it will go into a really unusual elliptical orbit that will take it essentially over every point on Mars once a week.

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AL AMIRI: It's providing us with full understanding of the changes of the weather of Mars throughout an entire Martian day and throughout all the seasons of Mars throughout an entire Martian year, which lasts roughly two Earth years.

KWONG: Wow. So they're really trying to get a comprehensive picture of the Martian atmosphere.

PALCA: Right. And it's not just over time. Here's David Brain. He's part of a team of scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder collaborating on the Emirates Mars Mission.

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DAVID BRAIN: The three instruments that are on the spacecraft will help us measure the atmosphere of Mars from the surface all the way to space, which hasn't really been done before with other missions.

KWONG: That's very cool. All right, Joe, I know that China's mission to Mars has been a bit shrouded in secrecy. Here's what we know - that its name is Tianwen-1, which means questions to heaven. But one of the most notable things about it is that it includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover, so a spacecraft that orbits a planet, can land on it and move across the surface.

PALCA: Right. Well, it's really - it's got three parts. It's all pushed together for the trip there, but then they separate.

KWONG: Fancy.

PALCA: And the orbiter, of course, stays in orbit and does remote sensing of the planet and also will serve as a radio relay station for the mission on the surface.

KWONG: Wow.

PALCA: And then they'll land these two things together, a lander and a rover, and then the rover will drive down a ramp and explore around the landing site. So it's an interesting mission. And I think it's a little hard to say. China is not obviously in the same category as NASA in terms of, look what we did; look over here; look through this. You know, they're a little more circumspect about how they do their missions. But the scientists I've talked to say this is a very serious and interesting probe, and it puts China in a really interesting position because only one country has successfully landed and rolled around on Mars. Can you guess which country that is?

KWONG: Russia.

PALCA: No, it's us. Come on, no.

KWONG: Is it the U.S.?

PALCA: It's the U.S., of course. Russia did actually land a probe. It's a question of whether to call it a success or not because it only sent signals back for a few seconds.

KWONG: Oh.

PALCA: So a technical success, I guess, but not a very interesting mission.

KWONG: So let's wrap up on the NASA mission scheduled for tomorrow. It's a rover mission. And earlier NASA Mars rovers were named Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity. This one is called Perseverance.

PALCA: Yup. The name came from a seventh-grade student in Virginia who won a NASA essay contest.

KWONG: Oh, I missed a good essay contest. OK, Joe, so tell me what Perseverance is looking to do on Mars.

PALCA: Well, it's heading to a place called Jezero crater, and it's a spot on Mars that scientists think was once a lake. Because it was a lake and because there was water there, they think there's a chance that there could've been microbes in the lake.

KWONG: So you mean, like, signs of ancient life on Mars.

PALCA: Yup. We're not talking three-toed sloths or something like that, but maybe microorganisms. And Katie Stack Morgan is deputy project scientist. She says other rover missions have seen signals of carbon, which, of course, you need to have something alive and that could've been left behind by microbial life.

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KATIE STACK MORGAN: But we haven't been able to necessarily link the presence of that carbon to particular textures or patterns that we see in the rock that we think could've been left behind by life.

PALCA: So what she's saying is a lot of times you see these patterns as squiggles or pockets or something like that in the rock, and you think, oh, on Earth when we see that, it looks like it was made by microbes. But...

KWONG: Yeah.

PALCA: ...We can't be sure on Mars because we were not there, so - and when you make an extraordinary claim, you need extraordinary proof.

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STACK MORGAN: Very likely, we'll have to return those samples to Earth to make that definitive conclusion about whether these samples contain life in them.

KWONG: OK, Joe, so how will NASA get these samples back to Earth?

PALCA: Well, that's what this rover mission is specifically designed to do is drill into the rock, take a sample, seal it in a container and leave the container on Mars so that it'll be picked up by another mission. When? Well, under the best-case scenario, the samples would return to Earth in 2031, although a lot could happen between now and then, so it could be longer than that.

KWONG: All right, any other cool thing about this mission, Joe, that you want to mention?

PALCA: Well, yes, and I have to say as exciting it is to find life on another planet, what's really cool is to have a drone on another planet. I mean...

KWONG: Oh, man.

PALCA: ...Come on.

KWONG: You and your technology.

PALCA: Yeah. It is something that some scientists and engineers cooked up a long time ago. And people said at first, oh, come on; you can't fly a helicopter on Mars, a drone on Mars. There's not enough atmosphere. But they said, yes, you can, and they put it into a test chamber with something that simulated the Mars atmosphere and showed, yeah, they could fly this thing around. So they convinced NASA administrators. So it's going to be a little helicopter flying around Mars.

KWONG: Very cool. And when will these various missions get to Mars?

PALCA: Well, they're all going to arrive around February of 2021, so we'll be back then to talk about them.

KWONG: All right, we'll have you back for an update. Thank you, Joe Palca, for coming on SHORT WAVE.

PALCA: You betcha.

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KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Abby Wendle, who also probed for the facts, and it was edited by Viet Le. Rate us on iTunes. If you like what we're doing on the show, tell a friend about us. We'll be back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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