What was considered a dangerously ambitious dream only a few years ago is now a concrete reality. A mission to Mars is in fact currently within the reach of human technology, and represents one of the most important space endeavors ever. If the presence of mankind on the Martian soil still seems a distant goal, its exploration through rovers and probes is now in full swing, with the ditching, as it is commonly defined by the scientific community, to have followed a process very similar to that which brought us to the Moon in 1969.
On the other hand, the fourth planet of the Solar System has fascinated since ancient times several populations, who have observed with curiosity the apparently irregular motion of that particular bright source of intense red color. Ares for the Greeks, Mars for the Latins, Augakuh for the Incas and Nirgal for the Babylonians, the celestial body associated with the god of war has entered the scope of NASA with the Mars 2020 mission, whose launch took place on July 30, 2020. And that owes a lot to all those observations that came before, even in the pre-astronomical age, which we're going to explore together before arriving at the futuristic scenario of which the National Agency for Space and Aeronautics activities is "hungry".
The first telescopic observations of Mars
NASA's Mars mission is as "fierce" as its reference planet also thanks to previous studies focused on the red planet. The first observations of Mars using a telescope are undoubtedly due to the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who between 1609 and 1610 was captivated by what at the time looked like a disc not very defined by the bright red and orange colors. Next came Christiaan Huygens and Gian Domenico Cassini, who first saw the icy poles that characterize the planet.
Between 1777 and 1783, William Herschel then calculated Mars' roughly 30° orbital inclination and nearly 25-hour rotation period. In 1840, Johann Heinrich von Mädler and Wilhelm Beer published their first map of Mars, taking advantage of the better visibility of the planet during a close passage between Mars and our Earth. Subsequently, other descriptions of Mars' surface details were made, and the nomenclature currently used is based on the 1877 map by Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli.
The Space Wave and the Viking Era
We must, however, make a big time jump between 1962 and 1972 to witness the fundamental surge of interest in Mars exploration and a subsequent, possible ditching. In this period, not coincidentally, the probe Mariner 4 performed what in jargon is called a flyby, or a flyover of the planet, which also allowed to capture the first close-up images of Mars and to transmit a radio signal to Earth through its atmosphere, now finally analyzed by satellite data. The photos, a total of 22, described the Martian surface as a desert made of deep craters, far from what the researchers of the previous century, ready to bet on artificial channels, vegetation and even the existence of a Martian population, imagined.
Mariner 9 was later the first real Martian artificial satellite: in 1971, managed to enter orbit around the planet, right in the middle of a global dust storm, studied so closely for the first time. When the storm cleared, it was possible for mankind to take a closer look at the surface details of Mars and build a much more accurate map, made of networks of valleys, volcanoes and polar caps.
To talk about a first mission to Mars, of course unmanned, we then have to circle on the calendar 1975, when the two probes Viking 1 and Viking 2 were launched to arrive on the surface of the planet. The goal was to finally find some trace of Martian life, but without succeeding. The apparent failure had actually a fundamental importance in our knowledge of the celestial body, and continued to collect data until November 1982, when they lost contact with Viking Lander 1, the last module sent from our atmosphere.
Data, these, extraordinary, and that between shots and movies have revolutionized the vision of Mars universally recognized by the community of scholars. Just to give an example, it has been possible to understand that the surface geological formations are nothing but the evident sign of the past presence of water on Mars, previous theory consequently confirmed.
Mars 2020: the mission on Mars that looks to the future
After the Viking program, for some years the interest in the red planet has gone to fade. Until very recently, with Mars 2020 representing NASA's main Mars mission. While also Elon Musk and his SpaceX look with incredible interest to the Martian soil, the stars and stripes government has reaffirmed its commitment to the understanding, and future colonization, of the most belligerent planet in the Solar System.
As already mentioned, the launch of the mission took place successfully in July 2020, while the arrival of the rover Perseverance and the drone Ingenuity was recorded on February 18, 2021 at 21:55, according to the Italian time zone. The Mars 2020 project, which began the surveys on April 19, 2021, has as its main objectives to study the habitability of Mars, investigate its past and look for traces of possible biological life.
Not only that, it is planned a subsequent storage of geological samples to be sent to Earth in order to analyze them in an extremely accurate way. The Mars 2020 mission is technically part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which includes Curiosity, the two probes Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently orbiting the planet, and the MAVEN orbiter, which arrived on the surface of Mars in September 2016 to study its upper atmosphere. In addition, a lander called InSight was launched in May 2018, which is tasked with getting a first look at the most inaccessible depths of the red planet.
The Mars 2020 Mission Goals
The U.S. government and NASA have set several ambitious goals to achieve with the Mars 2020 program, and with the Mars Exploration Program more generally. First and foremost, the Mars mission of the new millennium can and should determine whether life ever existed on this planet, taking advantage of the very technology and amazing abilities of the Perseverance rover. The instrument is going to focus on the observation and study of the Martian surface to search for traces of microbial life preserved on the rocks that have formed the Martian environment in ancient times.
Scholars are also focusing to define in some way the climate of Mars, reconstructing the past of its climatic conditions always thanks to the instruments of the rover, which are looking for evidence of ancient environments where microbial life could almost certainly have existed. Not to be underestimated is then the will to describe in a significantly more accurate way the Martian geology, studying with the rover the rock formations and geological processes that have created and modified the Martian crust and surface over time.
In addition, Perseverence is designed to extract and store samples of Martian rock and soil for a possible future mission, which will have the main objective to get them to Earth for all the necessary analysis. Ultimately, Mars 2020 is probing the ground for future human exploration. Once again using the rover, we will be able to scientifically demonstrate how to exploit the natural resources present in the Martian environment, monitoring at the same time the environmental conditions of the planet. In this way, guided by robotic exploration, we want to understand how to eventually protect the first human explorers, in view of future manned expeditions set for 2030.
The instruments of the Mars mission
As against a total cost of 2.1 billion dollars, NASA's Mars mission is as mentioned above based on two main instruments: the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity drone. The first, in particular, can count on the best of current technology, with 7 instruments chosen in a selection from 58 proposals, they are Mastcam-Z, Supercam, PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry), SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals), MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) and RIMFAX (The Radar Imager for Mars' subsurFAce eXploration). There are also 23 cameras: of these, 9 are called engineering, 7 are scientific and another 7 are used for the descent and landing on the Martian soil.
Perseverance is also equipped with two microphones to record ambient sound during the descent, landing and operation of the rover itself on the inhospitable soil of the red planet. The overall mass of the American rover amounts to a total of about 29 kg, while its maximum absorption, that is the moment in which, absurdly, all its instruments are operated simultaneously, is 436 W. To close, NASA's top brass made it official that the total cost of developing the scientific instrumentation amounts to about $130 million.