Why countries are desperate to defy the odds and access Mars

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum


  • Three countries have reached the Red Planet with missions in the past few weeks.
  • The desire to access Mars has endured despite a significant number of failed efforts.
  • A lot is at stake both scientifically and geopolitically for governments attempting exploration.

Getting there takes seven months, and landing on a surface where the average temperature is about -60°C involves “seven minutes of terror.”

Who could resist?

Despite the obstacles, active exploration of Mars has ramped up of late – pushing scientific discovery forward and potentially inching us closer to human habitation. The United Arab Emirates inserted a probe into Martian orbit earlier this month, the US followed with a NASA rover landing, and China has its own probe orbiting the Red Planet in anticipation of landing a rover in May.

One reason for the cluster of missions is that Mars was relatively close due to the planetary alignment last year, presenting a limited launch window. And there’s perhaps never been a better time to establish space prowess as a measure of broader ambitions. A handful of countries and regions have now successfully reached Mars, including India, Europe (the European Space Agency) and the Soviet Union.

The current round of exploration is expected to include several breakthroughs. NASA’s Perseverance rover is collecting Mars rocks for analysis for the first time, and it’s equipped with a microphone giving us our first listen to sounds from our neighbouring planet.

Image: World Economic Forum

Mars has become such a popular destination that debris is starting to accumulate. In one case, a European Space Agency lander presumed to have crashed after going incommunicado in 2003 was spotted on the surface by an American orbiter more than a decade later, safely perched in icy silence.

The history of Mars exploration is riddled with failure. In the 1990s four out of NASA’s six Mars missions were lost, including a $125 million orbiter after engineers neglected to convert from English to metric measurements. Russia, Japan, and China have also suffered disheartening setbacks.

The redoubled efforts to reach Mars despite our spotty shared track record speaks to the potential rewards. In a geopolitical sense, the more that can be learned about the planet, the more it can be put to strategic use. China’s current mission is a sign of heightened ambition; it’s expected to use ice-mapping technology to glean new insights into a planet that is in some ways similar to ours, and in others a ghostly opposite.

We’ve come a long way from the days of 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose Martian maps drawn on a Milan rooftop demonstrated questionable topographic certainty and sparked a belief in canals built by an alien civilization – but also gave us lasting place names.

Atlas of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli, made in 1888.
Atlas of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli, made in 1888. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • “A Wright brothers moment.” Among the firsts expected soon, according to this report: a powered flight on another world, when NASA’s Perseverance rover releases a tiny helicopter. (Nature)
  • China’s Mars mission, with a name that translates as “Quest for Heavenly Truth,” is bold even for a space program that’s racked up a steady stream of achievements of late including a moon landing, according to this report. (The Diplomat)
  • The UAE made history by becoming the first Arab nation to send a spacecraft to Mars, according to this report, and it now aims to establish the first inhabitable settlement on the planet within the next century. (Big Think)
  • Meet the Los Angeles-based member of the rock bands Black Belt Karate and Your Horrible Smile who helped design the microphone used on NASA’s Perseverance rover. (Wired)
  • The geopolitical situation is shifting dramatically in ways that could imperil future cooperation in space, according to this analysis – amid Russia sanctions and friction with China over trade and human rights. (Brookings)
  • While prior NASA missions to Mars showed it was likely once a warm planet habitable to microbial life, the current mission is meant to find evidence of such life; it will also test technology that could sustain human life there, according to this report. (MIT Technology Review)
  • Here’s the rocket science: a physics professor who has helped build a rover for the European Space Agency explains why it’s so hard to land one on the surface of Mars. (The Conversation)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Space, Geopolitics and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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