2014 is shaping up to be a big year for the Red Planet. Mars will not only have two new inhabitants move into its atmosphere, but will also see big developments on the surface. One Martian rover will reach its primary destination while another will celebrate a previously unimaginable anniversary. These milestones will all advance the efforts and research required to prepare for human missions to Mars by the 2030s.
January marks the 10th anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) Spirit and Opportunity working on Mars. Both robotic rovers landed on Mars in 2004 and were originally designed to function for about three months, drilling into Martian rocks and analyzing soil samples. Spirit and Opportunity surpassed every prediction, however, with Spirit remaining active until March 22, 2010 and Opportunity continuing to explore the planet to this day. NASA has several special events planned in January to celebrate a full decade of scientific exploration by these tenacious robots.
Another Martian resident, the Curiosity rover, will also make headlines this year. Late in 2013 Curiosity began the five mile journey from its landing site in Gale Crater to its primary destination of Mount Sharp. After completing the trek, which could last between 10 months to a year, the rover will use the mountain’s sedimentary layers to study the geological history of Mars. It will look specifically for evidence of Mars’ ancient past when the planet was believed to be more hospitable to living organisms. Both rovers will remain instrumental in continuing the work that began when the Pathfinder mission first successfully landed on Mars in 1997.
While the rovers continue their missions on the planet’s surface, Mars will also see two new satellites enter its orbit. In September the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission will reach its new home after a 10 month journey. NASA’s latest Mars mission is the first scientific probe devoted to understanding the planet’s upper atmosphere. By analyzing the rate at which the atmosphere currently escapes into space, MAVEN hopes to learn more about how Mars lost both its atmosphere and liquid water.
Also in September, India’s Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission is scheduled to enter Mars’ orbit. If the mission is successful, it will make India the fourth country or space agency to reach Mars behind the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency. It will also make India the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet. The Indian probe is designed to collect data on the history of the Martian climate and the surface’s mineral composition. More importantly, it will establish India as a technologically capable space-faring country.
This promises to be an exciting year for the Red Planet, with scientific discovery taking place both on the surface and high above in its atmosphere. Each of these missions will further humanity’s understanding of our closest celestial neighbor and aid in the necessary research and development required to one day put humans on Mars.
Story by Robyn Johnston