Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession



After hurtling hundreds of millions of miles through space since last summer, three robotic explorers are ready to hit the brakes at Mars.

The United Arab Emirates' orbiter reaches Mars on Tuesday, followed less than 24 hours later by China's orbiter-rover combo.

NASA's rover, the cosmic caboose, will arrive on the scene a week later, on February 18, to collect rocks for return to Earth, a key step in determining whether life ever exists at Mars.

Both the UAE and China are newcomers at Mars, where more than half of Earth's emissaries have failed. China's first Mars mission, a joint effort with Russia in 2011, never made it past Earth's orbit.

Called Amal, or Hope in Arabic, the Gulf nation's spacecraft is seeking an especially high orbit - 13,500 by 27,000 miles high (22,000 kilometres by 44,000 kilometres) to monitor the Martian weather.

China's duo called Tianwen-1, or Quest for Heavenly Truth, will remain paired in orbit until May when the rover separates to descend to the dusty, ruddy surface. If all goes well, it will be the second country to land successfully on the red planet.

The US rover Perseverance, by contrast, will dive in straight away for a harrowing sky-crane touchdown similar to the Curiosity rover's grand Martian entrance in 2012.

Perseverance is aiming for an ancient river delta that seems a logical spot for harbouring life.

Under an elaborate plan still being worked out by NASA and the European Space Agency, the geologic treasure would arrive on Earth in the early 2030s. Scientists contend it's the only way to ascertain whether life flourished on a wet, watery Mars 3 billion to 4 billion years ago. (PTI)


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