July is the month of Mars.
Three missions are poised to launch toward the Red Planet this month, including NASA's car-sized Perseverance rover, which will hunt for signs of ancient Mars life and cache samples for future return to Earth.
The action will start next week, if all goes according to plan. The United Arab Emirates' (UAE) first-ever interplanetary effort, the Hope Mars mission, also known as the Emirates Mars Mission, is scheduled to launch on July 14.
The Hope orbiter will reach Mars in early 2021, then use three science instruments to study the Red Planet's atmosphere, weather and climate from above. The probe's observations should help researchers better understand Mars' long-ago transition from a relatively warm and wet world to the cold, desert planet we know today, mission team members have said. That transition was driven by the stripping of Mars' once-thick atmosphere by the solar wind, the stream of charged particles flowing from the sun.
The Hope spacecraft was built by the UAE's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California Berkeley. And the project is breaking ground for more than just the UAE: Hope is the first planetary science mission led by an Arab-Islamic nation.
China will follow with a landmark launch of its own a little more than a week after Hope takes flight. On July 23, China's first-ever fully homegrown Mars mission, known as Tianwen-1, is scheduled to lift off atop a Long March 5 rocket. (China put a piggyback orbiter called Yinghuo-1 aboard Russia's Mars mission Fobos-Grunt, which got stuck in Earth orbit shortly after its November 2011 launch.)
Tianwen-1 is an ambitious project that consists of an orbiter, a lander and a 530-lb. (240 kilograms) rover that's the size of a small golf cart. Chinese officials have remained characteristically tight-lipped about the mission — they still haven't publicly announced a final landing site for the lander/rover pair, for example — but these robots' scientific gear suggests that Tianwen-1 will conduct a broad reconnaissance of the Martian environment.
The orbiter sports six instruments, including a high-resolution camera, a magnetometer and a mineral spectrometer, which will allow mission team members to determine the composition of surface rocks. The rover also has six instruments, including a weather station, a magnetic field detector and a ground-penetrating radar, which could spot subsurface water ice down to a depth of about 330 feet (100 meters).
If Tianwen-1 is successful, China will become just the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to land a spacecraft on Mars. And that epic touchdown may lead the way to even bigger things in the near future: Chinese space officials have voiced a desire to mount a Mars sample-return mission, which could perhaps launch as early as 2030.
The United States and Europe also plan to bring pristine Red Planet material to Earth, and that project will really get up and running with Perseverance's launch. The 2,315-lb. (1,050 kg) rover, the centerpiece of NASA's $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30 and land inside Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.
Perseverance will use its seven onboard instruments to characterize the geology of Jezero and search for signs of ancient Mars life in the rocks of the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) crater, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago.
The six-wheeled robot will also collect and cache several dozen samples from particularly promising study sites. This material will be recovered and brought to Earth, perhaps as early as 2031, in a campaign conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency. Scientists in labs around the world will then scrutinize the Mars material in great detail, looking for signs of life and clues about the planet's evolutionary history.
Mars 2020 also aims to lay groundwork for crewed missions to the Red Planet, the first of which NASA wants to launch in the 2030s. For instance, like the Tianwen-1 rover, Perseverance is outfitted with ice-hunting ground-penetrating radar. And another of the NASA rover's instruments, the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), will generate oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere, which is 95% carbon dioxide by volume. ("ISRU" stands for "in situ resource utilization." NASA is big on acronyms, in case you hadn't noticed.)
MOXIE isn't Mars 2020's only technology demonstration. A 4-lb. (1.8 kg) helicopter called Ingenuity will journey to the Red Planet on Perseverance's belly. After touchdown, Ingenuity will drop free and make a few short test flights in the Martian sky — the first-ever aerial exploration of a world beyond Earth.
If Ingenuity is successful, future Mars missions could commonly incorporate helicopters, NASA officials have said. Such rotorcraft could serve a variety of purposes, from scouting out promising study sites for rovers to exploring hard-to-reach areas such as caves or steep-walled craters.
Hope, Tianwen-1 and Mars 2020 all must get off the ground this summer or be put in storage for more than two years, because Earth and Mars align favorably for planetary missions just once every 26 months. And the current launch window isn't open for very long; Mars 2020's closes on Aug. 15, NASA officials have said. (The mission's window originally opened on July 17, but several technical issues have pushed things back to July 30.)
One Mars mission hoping to launch this year has already been packed away until 2022. The life-hunting rover Rosalind Franklin, part of the European-Russian ExoMars program, encountered parachute problems and several other issues that could not be resolved in time for a 2020 liftoff.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.