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Mars mania has begun with missions to the Red Planet underway

This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. (AP Photo)

Mars has always held a special fascination with the public with regards to the possibility of “life” in the universe.

Arizona holds a special place in that story as astronomer Percival Lowell helped build his observatory in Flagstaff for study of the fourth planet from our sun.

Lowell and many others had though that Mars was made up of many surface features which transported water from its poles. These were thought to be canals.

He thought that the shrinking polar caps provided water to the more arid regions on the planet, all constructed by some type of advanced life – Martians.

Lowell was wrong. There were no canals on Mars and no sign of alien life.

But he did provide a monument to the future of astronomy with the Lowell Observatory, home of the discovery of then-plant Pluto on Feb. 18, 1930.

We now turn our attention to the recent “fleet” of spacecraft which have now entered into orbit around this mysterious planet of Mars.

The first of these spacecraft is the NASA probe and lander known as Perseverance, launched July 30, 2020, aboard an Atlas V-541 rocket.

The trip from launch to landing takes about 203 days at some 25,000 mph.

Once in orbit, Perseverance will initiate a series of moves to slow down, release the rover capsule and attempt a soft landing in the Jezero crater.

The weather on Mars is very cold. Here are current weather conditions on the surface of Mars, from the Curiosity rover weather station.

Once on the planet, the rover will fire up and begin its exploration phase, searching for the following:

• Determine if life ever existed on Mars

• Learn about the climate of Mars

• Learn about the geology of Mars

• Prepare for human exploration

The rover has a special type of helicopter attached to it, known as the Ingenuity helicopter. This 4-pound drone will attempt to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere with a preprogrammed menu, as the real time signal from Earth will take up to 11 minutes.

Here are some images of the rover and the helicopter.

The rover is scheduled to land in the 30-mile wide Jezero crater. This crater is thought to have the sediment remnants of a possible lake which may have had the signs of life.

Here is a way to zoom in on the crater and landing site.

This mission is about to make some serious history on the surface of Mars. More technical details on the Perseverance mission can be found here.

Next in the Mars armada and new in the fleet is the United Arab Emirates spacecraft known as Hope.

This observation and data collecting spacecraft was built by an international team of scientists here in the USA and other locations.

This is a first for the Arab world and much pride is riding on this exploration vehicle.

Here is a graphic of the Hope spacecraft.

Launched toward Mars on July 19, 2020, Hope arrived there Feb. 9, 2021, and will be placed into a stable orbit of 55 hours around the red planet.

The main purpose of the mission is to explore the Martian weather systems and perform some detailed imaging of the planet surface. The mission is to remain in orbit for at least two years.

The craft is powered by two solar panels generating around 1,800 watts.

Before being launched into space, Hope was completed by scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, along with help from Arizona State University.

Many are saying that Hope is actually the first true weather satellite to be in Mars orbit.

It is the size of small car and weighs around 2,980 pounds.

You can follow the Hope mission at this site.

Our final member of the Mars armada is the Chinese spacecraft known as the Tianwen-1.

“Tianwen,” translated from Chinese, means “questions to Heaven” and is a very ambitious venture for China.

The spacecraft is made up of three main components: the orbiter, lander and rover. It launched July 23, 2020, atop the powerful Chinese rocket the Long March 5.

The craft entered Martian orbit Feb. 10, 2021, and will remain in a stable orbit around the planet for some time before deploying the lander and rover as early as May of this year.

The landing site is thought to be a flat plain region of Utopia Planitia, searching for possible life forms on the surface.

Here is what the Tianwen-1 spacecraft looks like.

This is what the Tianwen-1 Rover looks like.

The father of the Chinese space program was Qian Xuesen. He was educated both in China and the USA and the story reads like a spy novel. You decide!

The field of Mars spacecraft is growing, as the world’s attention is now focused on the Red Planet.

Just in case you want to know everything about every mission launched to Mars, as of this column, here is what you are looking for.

A final note:

Look to the night sky Friday around 8 p.m. Arizona time. Mars and the moon will be in close conjunction, high in the southern sky.

As you look at the moon and Mars, know that the moon will be some 250,000 miles away. On the other hand, Mars will then be some 125,000,000 miles from your eye.

Traveling at the speed of light it still takes 11 minutes for that light to get to Mars.

Just know that the spacecraft in orbit and the rovers on the surface are doing some amazing things that far away.

To print your own monthly star chart, click here.

To view satellites/dates/times of passage, click here.

Listen to the Dr. Sky Show on KTAR News 92.3 FM every Saturday at 3 a.m.

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