Observatory officials share joy of planned Mars exploration

[Editor’s Note: The following was written by volunteers at the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.]

Mars will be in the news a lot this year. Three launches are scheduled in the next 60 days, each vehicle bristling with cutting-edge instrumentation technology.

The secrets of Mars today and in its past are being revealed at an ever-growing pace.

Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover, is scheduled to launch on July 17, with landing targeted for Feb. 18 of next year.

This is the rover of our dreams. Its main mission is astrobiology. It is planned to land in Jezero Crater and use seven special instruments to search for ancient life forms, and investigate many aspects of Mars and its atmosphere.

Rock and soil samples will be cached for future return to earth. A first.

This mission is a true leap forward in the fascinating and important search for life elsewhere that is a driving force in space science. Finally, a vehicle with the means of recognizing biosignatures.

Imagine a 10-pound instrument named SHERLOC and its 22-pound partners SuperCam and 16-pound PIXL may be the tools that change our perspective of the origins of life in the solar system.

In any event, what they discover will be the key inputs to a next generation of more refined devices. That is how solar system science works. Decades of patient, incremental investigation.

Explore the vehicle here: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/rover/ and its instrument set here https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/instruments/

A spectacular animation of the robotics systems at work boring and collecting rock samples is here: (the talents honed in all those students competing in robotics events over the years is really paying off) https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/multimedia/videos/?v=423

This is amazing. By the way, Perseverance will even deploy a helicopter.

Not far behind may be a China mission, aiming to hit the mid-2020 launch window with its Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, also known as HX-1.

It also intends to search for current and past life forms, as well as other information about the Martian environment.

And, even another entrant in the mid-year Mars derby will come from the United Arab Emirates. The Hope Mars Mission "aims to collect information on Mars' meteorological layers and study the causes of loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases, the two main constituents of water, from the upper layer of the Martian atmosphere."

Now scheduled for 2022 is the European-Russian ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, named for the renowned scientist. The main mission is finding well-preserved organic material, particularly from the very early history of the planet.

So, not every instrument on every mission will be perfect, and not every launch date will be met, if history is a predictor.

But likely by 2023-25, we are going to know a lot more about the red planet, and the history of the solar system. Pretty exciting times.

A fun diagram has been assembled that maps every attempt to land on Mars, past and planned, successes and failures from Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1975, to the current planned missions.

It can be viewed at https://www.planetary.org/multimedia/space-images/charts/every-mars-landing-attempt-detailed.html.

Back home here at the observatory, we are busy finding ways to bring you meaningful information about the heavens, your observatory, and how the opening of the facility can occur going forward.

The key word here is meaningful. To you, not to us. We have always strived to bring interesting topics, over 35 of our past Second Saturday Stars talks are available on our YouTube channel.

But in this new environment, we need your input on what you would like us to deliver and how to deliver it.

It would be very helpful to get your guidance as we work on plans. A simple questionnaire with just three questions is on this link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1BfjImg92A7O_HZ83oYndKEgnEim90vIUB1gAumZc_2Q/edit