The solar system is about to get busy! In the next few weeks, a slew of spacecraft will embark on a one-way journey to Mars, to seek evidence of past life and to further investigate its unusual atmosphere. The back-to-back missions are timed to take advantage of the short window of opportunity — caused by celestial mechanics — that will allow them to reach the Red Planet in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.
Since landing on Mars on February 18, 2021, NASA's Perseverance rover has achieved numerous "firsts," including beaming audio sounds from the Red Planet's surface. It also made history as the first spacecraft to record sounds from another spacecraft — the Ingenuity helicopter — on another planet.
The NASA Perseverance rover's 293 million mile (472 million km) journey to Mars ended successfully on February 18, 2021, with a picture-perfect landing inside the Jezero Crater. The car-sized, six-wheeled rover, nicknamed Percy, is the US space agency's biggest and most advanced explorer to date. Its primary mission is to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.
NASA made history on April 19, 2021, by conducting the first controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. In what is being described as a "Wright brothers moment," the tissue-box-sized Ingenuity gradually ascended to an altitude of 9.8 feet (3 meters) above the surface of Mars and hovered for 30 seconds before gracefully descending to land on its four legs.
Over the years, NASA has successfully deployed several rovers, landers, and orbiters to Mars. While the science laboratories continue to provide invaluable data about the Red Planet, their limited, or zero — as is the case with landers — mobility, restricts the space exploration vehicles to areas close to the original landing site. To obtain a more comprehensive view of Mars, the US Space Agency plans to send a fully-autonomous miniature test helicopter with the Mars 2020 rover, scheduled for launch in July 2020.
Before astronauts land on Mars, scientists must know everything they can about its inhospitable landscape. While the various exploration vehicles dispatched over the years are providing researchers with invaluable data, the bulky machines are constrained to exploring flat surfaces close to their respective landing sites.
Mars is famous for its orangish-red hue caused by the iron oxide in its soil. However, the Red Planet's surface, which has been drastically altered by volcanoes, impact craters, crustal movement, and atmospheric conditions such as dust storms, is also home to a wide range of fascinating topographical features. High among the list is Valles Marineris — the Solar System's longest and deepest-known canyon.
On November 26, 2018, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California held their breath as the InSight spacecraft attempted the most challenging part of its 300 million-mile-long journey to Mars – landing. At 2:53 p.m. EST, following a few nail-biting moments, the room erupted in joy at the sound of the official “beep,” and the grainy photo of the Red Planet which confirmed that the lander had not only touched down but was functioning as expected.