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.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Thousands of Syrians in ‘life and death’ struggle amid harsh conditions in remote desert camp, UN warns

Meet the Junior Enterprise network at JEWC 2014!

Brussels to point the finger to Washington for lack of commitment over TTIP

European Defence Fund: EU funds new joint research and industrial projects

Plan for troop pullback ‘now accepted’ by rival forces around key Yemen port, but fighting intensifying elsewhere, Security Council warned

New malaria vaccine trial in Malawi marks ‘an innovation milestone’, declares UN health agency

Progress in medical research: leading or lagging behind?

Yemen talks: Truce agreed over key port city of Hudaydah

Girls hold the key to Zambia’s future

New UN report shows record number of children killed and maimed in conflict

COVID-19 threatens the developing world’s small businesses. This is how to save them

ECB to people: Not responsible if you lose money on Bitcoin, your governments are

Bioethics: how to recover trust in the doctor-patient relationship

ECB with an iron hand disciplines the smaller Eurozone member states; latest victim: Greece

Barcelona’s ‘superblocks’ could save lives and cut pollution, says report

This is how we can save millions of people from extreme poverty after COVID-19

Governments should step up their efforts to give people skills to seize opportunities in a digital world

Unity, regional cooperation and international support needed for Horn of Africa to develop sustainably

The shrinking Arctic ice protects us all. It’s time to act

International World Summit Award calls for outstanding digital applications with impact on society from 178 UN member states

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech from World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of New Champions

Booking.com commits to align practices presenting offers and prices with EU law following EU action

Science leads the response to COVID-19. These 25 scientists are tackling the other global challenges

Europe’s forests are booming. Here’s why.

UN’s Bachelet rejects Sri Lankan official’s ‘spin’ on Human Rights Council encounter, urges reforms

Global South cooperation ‘vital’ to climate change fight, development, Guterres tells historic Buenos Aires summit

Ten UN peacekeepers killed in a terrorist attack in northern Mali

Yemen war: UN chief urges good faith as ‘milestone’ talks get underway in Sweden

Lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment – and we will pay the price

State aid: Commission approves €511 million Italian scheme to compensate commercial rail passenger operators for damages suffered due to coronavirus outbreak

4 ways to deliver social justice during the COVID-19 recovery

This Brooklyn farm company is training a new generation of urban farmers

Why vaccines are not just for children

Online radio and news broadcasts: Parliament and Council reach deal

World’s Press Calls on the United Kingdom to Address Press Freedom Concerns

Turkey: Commission continues humanitarian support for refugees

New UN forestry project bids to help countries meet climate change commitments

Conflict prevention, mediation: among ‘most important tools’ to reduce human suffering, Guterres tells Security Council

5 ocean success stories to chase away the blues

Coronavirus: Pandemic alert should be trigger for countries to do more against COVID-19

Financial services are changing. Here’s how

Thursday’s Daily Brief: Climate crisis and food risks, fresh violence threat for millions of Syrians, calls for calm in Kashmir

The application that encourages us to be heroes

EU shapes its ambitious strategy on India

Chart of the day: When do young Europeans leave home?

Dear Davos: time to declare an emergency opportunity for people and planet

EU Parliament raises burning issues over the FTA with the US

How the world can gear up for the fight against cancer

The World Health Organization has called on countries to ‘test, test, test’ for coronavirus – this is why

Key quotes from China’s Premier Li on COVID-19, the economy and US relations

“ASEM: Global Partners for Global Challenges”, a Sting Exclusive by China’s Ambassador to the EU

There is no patient safety without healthcare workers’ safety

Safer roads: More life-saving technology to be mandatory in vehicles

Canada has the most comprehensive and elaborate migration system, but some challenges remain

Global hunger is on the rise. These simple steps could help eradicate it

The Europe we want: Just, Sustainable, Democratic and Inclusive

Ambassador Zhang Ming Attends the EP Debate on China-EU Relations and Answers Questions

Asia’s plastic problem is choking the world’s oceans. Here’s how to fix it

Guterres censures terrorist attacks in Nigeria, pledges UN ‘solidarity’

UN Mission in Haiti calls on protestors, authorities, to refrain from violence

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s