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Mars missions: NASA, China and the UAE launch new spacecraft this month

Three missions from space agencies across the globe are heading to Mars to seek signs of past life and examine the atmosphere.

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We're not sending astronauts to Mars yet, but July marks a significant month for launches to the red planet, aimed at seeking signs of life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

With travel greatly restricted across the planet, you might feel a little jealous of the three robotic explorers scheduled to depart to Mars in the next month. From this week until mid-August, a bevy of spacecraft will depart Earth with a one-way ticket to the red planet, tasked with uncovering secrets about past life and the planet's unusual atmosphere. 

NASA will send the Perseverance rover, a next-gen wanderer that will explore an ancient lake bed, looking for evidence of alien life. The Chinese space agency is launching a triple threat: An orbiter, lander and rover are on a mission to make China just the third country to land on Mars. And then there's Hope, the United Arab Emirates' orbiter, set to study the Martian atmosphere like never before.

It might seem unusual so many Mars missions are launching in such a small amount of time, but I can assure you it's not because the robots have achieved sentience and decided to flee the garbage fire that 2020 has become. It's just physics.

The Earth and Mars orbit the sun at different speeds, but every 26 months, their orbits line up neatly enough for space agencies to take advantage of something known as a Hohmann transfer orbit.

"We do this kind of transfer orbit in order to use the least fuel," says James O'Donoghue, a planetary scientist with Japanese space agency JAXA. "We also must aim where Mars is going to be in the future." 

"It's like passing a football to a striker, you've got to aim where they're going to be," he says.

The trajectory of the Insight lander (purple) as it leaves Earth (blue) and heads to Mars (green). The sun is the yellow dot, center-left.

Wikimedia Commons/JPL/NASA

NASA took advantage of this window when it launched InSightthe Marsquake detector, back in May 2018. You can see the transfer orbit in action in the image to the right.

Mars is particularly good at destroying our robotic explorers: History shows that around half of the missions to Mars fail. But to paraphrase rogue galactic adventurer Han Solo, it appears three space agencies like those odds. Here's a brief overview of what you need to know about the big month of Mars missions. 

Click here and you can find links on how to watch the upcoming launches live.

A new Hope

The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than that of Earth and is primarily composed of carbon dioxide. It's so thin scientists are fairly certain liquid water cannot exist at the planet's surface but there're still a number of mysteries astronomers hope to solve about the red planet's atmospheric conditions. 

Notably, Mars has thrown up some interesting questions when it comes to gases and the atmosphere. There's been an intense investigation of its methane, which seems to spike periodically in different regions across the surface. 

To learn more about the planet's weird atmosphere, the United Arab Emirates will send the "Al Amal" probe -- also known as "Hope" -- to Mars on an unspecified date later in July. The small car-sized probe will unfurl its solar panels early in the mission and use star tracking to navigate its way to the destination. Once it reaches Mars in February 2021, it's orbit will see it circle Mars once every 55 hours. 

China strikes back

So far, only the US and Russia have been able to land on the surface of Mars. China, however, has made one attempt to reach Mars' orbit -- but the rocket it was launched on never made it to space. 

China is ready to make another attempt with Tianwen-1, a spacecraft containing a Martian orbiter, lander and a rover. It's name is inspired by a Qu Yuan poem of the same name and means "Questions to Heaven." Though only weeks away, the mission remains shrouded in secrecy. However, reports suggest it will look for signs of life and use ground-penetrating radar to help map the surface. 

China has been particularly active in space exploration lately. At the beginning of 2019, it was able to land a rover on the far side of the moon for the first time but this mission was also rather secretive -- China didn't even provide an update of the landing site for a few weeks. Yutu-2, the rover, has been working away on the lunar surface, discovering unusual gel-like substances (which turned out to be some rock) and continuing on its merry way across the desolate plains.

Tianwen-1 is currently scheduled to launch on July 23 and, like the two other spacecraft heading to Mars, expected to arrive sometime in February 2021.

Return of the rover

When a giant Martian dust storm ended the history-making mission of the Opportunity in early 2019, only one rolling science laboratory was left operational on the surface: Curiosity. 

But in February 2021, provided all things go as smoothly as planned, NASA's lone rover will be joined by two new robotic allies: Perseverance, a cutting-edge alien hunting lab, and Ingenuity, a "helicopter" set to take to the skies of the red planet. 

Ingenuity could become the first vehicle flown on another planet, provided it unfurls from the belly of Perseverance correctly and is able to take to the Martian skies. It's hoped the mission will enable new ways to explore different worlds and potentially as-yet-unexplored moons of Jupiter or Saturn. 

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Perseverance's touchdown point is an ancient lake bed known as Jezero Crater. The crater appears to have once been full of water and Perseverance's suite of scientific instruments should be able to analyze the soil and sediment to see if there's any possibility life once thrived there. It will also cache samples and leave them on the surface of Jezero Crater, with further missions to Mars aimed at retrieving the samples and bringing them back to Earth. 

NASA's stance is that life cannot exist on Mars in the modern-day -- it's too cold and too dry. But Perseverance could answer the question "are we alone in the universe?" by finding the telltale signs of life in geological formations. Here's hoping it survives the "seven minutes of terror" synonymous with Martian landings.

How to watch launches to Mars in July and August

If you're looking to catch the launch of the UAE's Hope probe and NASA's Perseverance rover to the red planet this month, you'll find them below. And if you're interested in celestial events and rocket launches, we recommend syncing your calendar with CNET's Space Calendar -- you'll never miss a launch again.

Note: A livestream of the Tianwen-1 launch is not expected and the dates are subject to change.