Editor's Note

Why COVID-19 Is Not Reducing Government-Industry Appetite for Mars Exploration

On July 30, NASA will launch its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 30. Here, a computer generated illustration shows the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – which the agency hopes will become the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet – on the Martian Surface. (NASA)

This week, NASA will lead the U.S. to launch a new exploration mission to Mars, as the third country in the last two weeks to do so. As this happens during a global pandemic that consumes the public’s attention, a debate has emerged as to whether the billions in investment required to eventually send humans to Mars is worth government funding rather than pressing concerns on earth.

On July 20, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government-funded “Al Amal” or “Hope” probe launched to Mars from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. Several days later China launched it’s own Tianwen-1 spacecraft on July 23, en route to Mars from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, and NASA plans on launching its Mars 2020 “Perseverance” mission on July 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Each of these missions are scheduled to reach Mars by February of next year to carry out a variety of tests and observations of the planet’s atmosphere and other elements.

The flurry of missions to Mars comes as Earth’s orbit aligns in a way that allows such trajectory paths to become more optimal, according to Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency which had planned on launching its own mission to Mars this summer prior to halting the project due to COVID-19 and technical challenges. Turner led U.K. support of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos Space Corp. that would have launched the ExoMars mission to determine if there has ever been life on the Red Planet and gain a deeper understanding of the presence of water.

Turnock was one of four panelists on the July 20 FIA Connect 2020 Webinar, “Why Mars: The Out of this World Benefits of Space Exploration,” hosted by the Farnborough International Airshow, attempting to explain the economic benefits of continuing to invest in exploration missions to Mars with the eventual goal of sending humans there.

“The problem with Mars is you have a really short launch window that only exists for two years, and that’s because Mars and the Earth have rotational periods around the Sun that don’t quite match. But they come together every two years, so you want to make the jump to Mars when the two planets are closest together,” Turnock said.

ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, has seen its launch postponed until 2022. ESA and Roscosmos officially cancelled the mission on March 12, citing both COVID-19’s impact on the ability of experts involved in the program to travel within Europe and further testing that was required for the spacecraft’s flight hardware and software systems. That has not stopped the appetite for government investment in space exploration both to the moon in the nearer term and Mars in the future with humans.

That is especially the case for the United Kingdom, where just four days after Turnock spoke, the U.K Space Agency launched a new space innovation program to initially put £15m toward projects associated with Earth observation, communications, and international partnerships.

But the reality remains that the 300 million mile journey it takes to send a spacecraft from Earth to Mars, and control what that spacecraft does on Mars or within its orbits using radio signals from Earth, requires onerous feats of engineering. The UAE Space Agency describes the early operation of its Hope Probe as needing to stay in Earth’s orbit until it can achieve exact alignment with Mars and start its trajectory. The Emirates Mars Mission team estimates that it takes about 13 to 26 minutes for radio signals to reach with the spacecraft once it reaches Mars.

Challenges such as these are why the idea of sending humans to Mars still seems like science fiction. However, Turnock and others within the space community believe that some of the other government initiatives and projects developing spacecraft to land on the moon could be a stepping stone toward eventual human spaceflight to Mars.

“The moon is naturally the first place to try to solve some really important challenges if we want to go on to other planets after that,” Turnock said. “Once you move out of the Earth’s low earth orbit you’re exposed to radiation. So a mission to Mars would expose astronauts to lengthy periods of cosmic radiation, going to the Moon is a good place to test a period of time with that type of challenge.”

The Emirates Mars Mission officially launched its “Hope Probe” to Mars on Sunday July 19, destined to reach the Red Planet by February 2021 in time for the 50th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates achieving independence. (Emirates Mars Mission)

However, considering the economic toll so many businesses and individuals around the world have suffered in recent months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are such projects still worthy of government investment?

“I believe that is a totally wrong and stupid reaction,” Jan Wörner, director general of ESA said during the webinar, when considering that perspective.

Wörner has been a major proponent for increased European Union investment in developing solutions to enable human spaceflight, and sees the types of missions launching this summer by China, the UAE and United States as inspirational and a precursor to future human spaceflight to Mars. ESA’s current involvement in human spaceflight includes its own astronaut corps., a European module on the International Space Station and the European Service Module they will provide for the Space Launch System, which NASA claims will be the most powerful rocket it has ever built.

In November 2019, ESA received a 20 percent increase to its three-year budget to €12.5 billion, the largest it has seen in 25 years. Throughout the webinar, Wörner argued that more government-backed funding in human spaceflight is needed regardless of the current need to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m not so happy about all of these discussions coming from politicians,” Wörner said. “The normal people, whom I think are more important, they don’t worry about that. We asked them, we made a big survey and they said yes. Go for Space. Go for the Moon. Go for Mars. People are really looking at it as a positive mission for humankind, and not just as a question as to whether the Euro or the Pound is invested well. It is invested well, but this is not the point.”

Will Whitehorn, former president of Virgin Galactic and current president of UKSpace, said that he actually expects commercial investment in exploration and human spaceflight initiatives for Mars to increase as a result of the pandemic. The ability to use artificial intelligence to build technologies in space, he said, could lead to the use of solar power being “microwaved down to the planet” and the establishment of new space-based server farms as well.

“I think the events of the last four months means that the investment in Space increases quite dramatically over a five year period ahead and we will start to have industrial activities up there that we wouldn’t have conceived happening in 50 years happening in five, that will be one of the COVID effects,” Whitehorn said.

A major difference Whitehorn sees in the current government-industry appetite for the continued push toward sending humans to space, no matter how futuristic that may sound, is driven by real-world examples and commercial developments that are already happening.

“The economics of going to Mars made the idea of going to Mars in the modern era very far fetched, and a whole generation began thinking it is too difficult, they saw the problems with the Space Shuttle and got slightly disillusioned,” Whitehorn said.

“But we’re now in a generation who do not feel like that. They feel like the world is their oyster from the point of view of Space, because they’re seeing things like Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and SpaceX do amazing things. Seeing Elon Musk building rockets capable of taking humans to Mars….people are excited about it again and that’s why science missions there are in the public eye. I think Elon’s pipe dream of ten years ago is moving to a possible reality.”

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