After a six-month space journey, two rovers and one orbiter sent by three countries are set to make history as they touchdown on Mars. In July 2020, the United States (U.S.), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China each launched missions to the red planet in search of evidence of life, to map the planet’s climate and to drill into its surface to explore for water. Now, with touchdown in sight, the teams are about to embark on the next phase of their missions, while setting a new precedent for space exploration.

The UAE’s Hope Probe was the first to arrive on February 9, closely followed by China's Tianwen-1 rover on February 10. NASA's Perseverance rover is scheduled to touchdown February 18.  While Hope orbits Mars for an entire Martian year, sensors on board will help monitor and track changes in solar wind, hydrogen, and oxygen, providing scientists with the first image of the planet’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to include an orbiter, a landing platform, and a rover all in one expedition.  As for NASA's Perseverance, which follows a long line of U.S. rovers that have been sent to explore the planet, the rover is expected to scan and drill through the Martian soil and launch a helicopter called Ingenuity across the red planet’s Jezero Crater.

Each of the three missions is looking to achieve unique milestones in Mars research. As history shows though, navigating the planet is no easy task.

Recent IEEE Research Aids in Mars Missions

Whether it is falling into Mars’ orbit or landing on its red surface, each team will face an array of challenges before reaching their end goal. This includes a different gravity field than Earth, complex weather patterns, and once landed, terrain that contains craters, cliffs, boulders, and volcanic rocks. To understand the complexities involved in a mission of this magnitude, researchers have outlined how the latest advances in space technology could aid these Mars missions and pave the way for scientific breakthroughs and future explorations to other planets.

The first paper describes a global research team’s effort to address the navigational obstacles presented in this mission. The team developed a three-part mapping system that could help pinpoint ideal terrain for rovers like Tianwen-1 and Perseverance to drive on. Using high-resolution data from a copter and orbiter, the system is helpful for missions in uncharted environments, like the Mars 2020 mission.

According to Takahiro Sasaki from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the copter, which serves as a scout, flies ahead of the rover to detect hazardous materials in advance and collect information about the terrain that could support the rover’s travel path. The images obtained by the orbiter add another layer of protection to the team’s mapping strategy by capturing an aerial view of the planet that could help the copter land after its 90-second a day flight journey.

“The image resolutions from the orbiter are not enough to help the rover with detailed path planning,” said Takahiro. “So, in addition to the information obtained from the orbiter, the helicopter’s scouting images and generated maps play a crucial role for safely planning the rover’s path.”

Figure 1 outlines the team’s three-part mapping system. The copter captures undiscovered territory that aids the rover in mapping its way forward.

Mapping Mars 2020 mission to Mars.

Figure 1: Three-part mapping system comprised of a Mars rover, copter and orbiter

“The helicopter and rover have complementary capabilities that can help them potentially accomplish more complex missions jointly,” said Takahiro.

For future missions, enhancing the copter’s level of autonomy and travel time could pave the way for helicopter-based missions to Martian caves, the most likely places to find signs of extinct and extant life on the planet.

For the Mars 2020 mission, two main hotspots will be used to search for signs of microbes that may have once thrived on the red planet. The Jezero Crater, which used to be a riverbed, and Utopia Planitia, a vast field of volcanic rock and the red planet’s largest impact crater, will serve as the focal points for Tianwen-1 and Perseverance.

Since discoveries of life lie beneath the surface, drilling will play a critical role in subsurface exploration and collecting samples for Earth.

For a unique landscape like Mars, another team of researchers from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom experimented with different drill designs to identify space-drilling methods that would give astronomers the ability to reach new penetration levels at faster speeds. The designs, which were inspired by the popular wood-wasp technique, were tested according to feasibility, drill time, consumed power, and drill curve. The six drill bits that were tested are shown in Figure 2.

Types of drills for use on Mars

Figure 2: The designs of the drill bits that were tested

To be successful on the red planet, the team recommends using customizable drills, given their ability to adapt to specific locations, terrain compositions, and in some cases, withstand a planet’s gravity levels and pressure. If customizable drills are not an option, convex drill bits are more promising than concave as they can handle and switch from soft to coarse-grain terrain. Understanding how each of these elements work together can make the biggest difference in reaching new exploratory levels with drilling.

Not only does drilling play a role in subsurface exploration, but if leveraged properly, drilling can also be used to mine for life-sustaining materials such as water. This process is referred to as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), a method that can be used to extract and collect resources when humans aren’t in space or don’t play a central role, as seen in the Mars mission.

Finally, researchers from the California Institute of Technology developed a robotic excavation system that can autonomously extract water from hydrated minerals and mine for rocks. The ISRU architecture incorporates all five functions needed for terrestrial mining operations and material delivery. This includes breaking, scooping, hauling, dumping, and crushing materials to be processed by a ISRU plant. The team’s system is also economical, incorporating maintenance and repair capabilities that allow missions to stay operational for extended periods of time rather than replace failed equipment. These functions are laid out in Figure 3.

While the team’s concept is intended for Mars, it can be adapted for lunar expeditions or other planetary bodies, spurring new approaches for upcoming missions.

Mining on Mars to help humans live on Mars

Figure 3: The overall excavation and material delivery system

For centuries, studying Mars has been a priority for astronomers. With the world watching, the new rovers and orbiter could take them closer to understanding whether extraterrestrial life once lived there – or still does today – and provide details needed to expand civilizations to other planets. And while human expeditions may still be years away, the technologies used during these missions could bring scientists closer to achieving that goal.