These past couple of weeks have greeted us with exciting news from Mars! First, the United Arab Emirates mission to place a weather satellite named Al-Amal into orbit around the red planet was a success! One of the main goals of the "hope probe" is to understand the red planet's atmosphere. This work will be essential to help solve the mystery of why Mars has lost so much of its original atmosphere. For those interested in following the UAE's mission, I invite you to visit their website: https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae/ar.
Another bit of exciting news is that NASA's latest Mars rover and "helicopter" have also arrived at Mars! The Perseverance Rover has an ambitious mission of drilling samples on the red planet to be sent back to Earth by a future mission being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). If successful, the future launch of Perseverance's samples back to Earth will be the first time humans have launched a space traveling vessel from another planet.
The second part of NASA's Mars mission is to accomplish another first. A small helicopter is attached to the underbelly of Perseverance named Ingenuity. Though Ingenuity's mission goals are far more modest than Perseverance's mission, a successful flight would mark the first time an autonomies helicopter flew on another planet. The helicopter will help scientists explore regions of Mars inaccessible for rovers.
As odd as it sounds, amid the amazing science that will be done with Al-Amal and Perseverance, I'm most excited about Ingenuity's mission. Why, might you ask? Ingenuity reminds me of radio controlled planes and helicopters I always wanted to play with as a child. And with its first mission to be a "simple" ascend and descend, who wouldn't want to grab the joystick and fly a small helicopter on Mars? Of course, even though Ingenuity looks like a child's toy, it's far more complicated both in design and mission that it looks. For more information on the NASA Mars missions, click the link: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.
While watching both of these mission teams celebrate their first accomplishments, I can't help but feel joy. The world often sees space travel as normal, forgetting the difficulties, planning, and thin margin for error that goes into these missions. Watching the joy of these scientists reminds me that every space mission is a "first" and should be celebrated as a major achievement.
I will offer deeper reflections in weeks to come. For today, I simply wanted to thank both NASA and UAE for sharing the joy of their success with us. In a year of pandemic that has seen much pain, sadness, and death, both of your teams (along with the other Mars Missions arriving soon from other countries) have given us a moment of joy and relief! My prayers for the success of both of your missions. Let's learn more about our distant neighbor!