Quirks & Quarks

Missions to Mars, meteors and astronauts: A summer of space science

Bob McDonald's blog: We may not be travelling much this summer, but there's lots going on above us

Bob McDonald's blog: We may not be travelling much this summer, but there's lots going on above us

Artist's concept of the launch of the NASA Mars 2020 mission carrying the Perseverance rover on an Atlas V rocket. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This summer is packed with space science: three missions head off to Mars; there will be continued activity by astronauts flying commercial spacecraft up to the International Space Station; and it will all be topped off by a spectacular meteor shower.

Opportunities to fly between Earth and Mars come along roughly every two years when the two planets are closest together on the same side of the sun. Three different missions from three nations will take advantage of this summer's launch window.

First off the mark is the United Arab Emirates with its first Mars orbiter, called the Hope Mars Mission. Hope will launch on a Japanese rocket July 14 and arrive at the red planet in 2021, which is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. Hope will study the Martian atmosphere to understand how it has changed so dramatically since the time Mars was a warmer, wetter world.

Illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars. Perseverance will continue the search for signs of life on Mars, and collect geological samples that will be cached for a potential sample return mission in the future. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

July 22 should see the launch of the largest and most complex mission of the summer, NASA's Mars 2020 mission and its new rover named Perseverance. This is another wheeled vehicle the size of a small car. It's similar in appearance to the Curiosity rover which has been roaming on Mars since 2011. 

Perseverance is more focused on finding signs of life and will cache selected samples from the Martian soil. The plan is that these will be picked up by a later mission and returned to Earth for detailed study.

Attached to the belly of the rover is the first-ever helicopter to fly on another world, which should provide some interesting aerial perspectives. 

The following day, on July 23, China will send off both an orbiter and a small lander named Tianwen 1, which means "Heavenly Questions." One of the objectives of the mission is to look beneath the Martian surface with ground-penetrating radar.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour approaches the International Space Station with the coast of Turkey visible below. (NASA)

SpaceX planning a second Crew Dragon launch

Meanwhile, the astronauts who flew up to the International Space station on the Space X Crew Dragon in May are very pleased with the way the new space capsule is performing, and if all tests are completed, they could return to Earth in late July or early August. Another crew is preparing for launch on what will be the first operational Crew Dragon flight, which could happen as early as Aug. 30. 

Image of the Perseid meteor in 2018. (Submitted by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

And for skywatchers, the annual Perseid Meteor Shower should peak on the night of Aug. 11–12. All you need to do is lie under the stars late at night, face northeast and watch the cosmic light show unfold before your eyes.

Have a great summer everyone!

Bob McDonald's blog will return in September.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.