NASA Isn’t the Only Space Program Celebrating a Year at Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover was not the only new arrival at Mars 12 months ago.

Two other spacecraft also made the trip from Earth to Mars during the last window when the two planets lined up, helping each of their countries achieve debuts in interplanetary exploration.

One country’s exploration is not a surprise. China is building a portfolio of impressive space missions, including robotic missions to the moon and a space station under construction in Earth orbit. In 2021, its Tianwen-1 mission arrived at Mars with three parts: an orbiter, a lander and a rover named Zhurong.

Months after the mission arrived in Mars orbit, the lander, carrying Zhurong, set down in the southern part of Utopia Planitia, a volcanic plain. That made China only the second country to pull off a lasting mission on the surface of the red planet. Chinese scientists are scheduled to present some of their early scientific results next month at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Woodlands, Texas.

The other country was an unexpected newcomer: the United Arab Emirates. Without much experience in spaceflight, it collaborated with engineers at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics to build Hope, a spacecraft about the size of a small car.

Sarah Al Amiri, a project manager for the Emirates Mars Mission, speaking during a live broadcast of the Hope mission’s arrival at Mars in 2021.Credit…Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

Hope is smaller in size and ambition than Perseverance or Tianwen-1, but building it provided on-the-job training for budding Emirati engineers and scientists who worked side-by-side with their American counterparts in Boulder, Colo.

Hope entered orbit around Mars and continues looping around the planet, making measurements of the atmosphere. It has made some unexpected findings, particularly the quantity of oxygen in the upper atmosphere.

“When we were comparing it to the models, it was around 50 percent higher than were expected,” said Hessa al-Matroushi, the mission’s science lead. “So that was surprising.”

Hope’s instruments found structures in the upper atmosphere with higher concentrations of oxygen. Scientists are trying to figure out the significance of the surprise.

Another spacecraft, the ExoMars 2022 mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is planned for launch to Mars this year. It was originally scheduled for launch in 2020, but technical problems and the pandemic the mission was postponed. The next opportunity for launch opens in late September.

ExoMars is carrying a rover named Rosalind Franklin, which is to look for indications of past life in Oxia Planum, a 120-mile-wide plain near the equator that possesses clay-rich minerals.

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