Hubble's Close Encounter with Mars

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope took this close-up of the red planet Mars when it was just 55, 760, 220 km away. This colour image was assembled from a series of exposures taken between 6:20 p.m. and 7:12 p.m. EDT Aug. 26 with Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The picture was taken just 11 hours before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 60, 000 years. Many small, dark, circular impact craters can be seen, attesting to the Hubble telescope's ability to reveal fine detail on the planet's surface. One of the most striking is the 450-km diameter Huygens crater, seen near the centre of the image. (Image courtesy NASA/ESA, J. Bell (Cornell U.) and M. Wolff (SSI))

Last week we talked about NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is tentatively scheduled to launch to Mars on July 30. Two other missions have launched to Mars in July, and both represent huge steps for their respective countries.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched the Mars Hope orbiter atop a Japanese-built H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima space center in Japan on July 19. This is an amazing accomplishment for a country that was founded after humans first landed on the moon.

The UAE has only had a space program since 2014, making this feat even more incredible. This is the first interplanetary mission for any Arab country. Like virtually every space mission, Hope is an international collaboration, with major contributions to the design and launch of the craft coming from Japan and the United States.

The Hope orbiter will complement the work of European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and NASA’s MAVEN mission by studying the atmosphere and climate of Mars from a highly elliptical and distant orbit. The UAE will freely share all of its data.

Women make up 80% of the mission science team. The mission aims to inspire a generation of Emiratis just as the Apollo program did in the United States.

Tianwen 1 launched to Mars on a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Space Center in China on July 23. This ambitious Chinese mission is comprised of an orbiter, lander and rover. If the rover and lander make it to the Martian surface safely, China will be only the third country, following the United States and the Soviet Union, to execute a soft landing on Mars.

The lander and rover are expected to touch down in the Utopia Planitia area of Mars, a region where large amounts of subsurface water ice are thought to exist. The rover will use its ground-penetrating radar to search for and map the underground water supply. It is estimated that Utopia Planitia contains as much water as Lake Superior.

The rover is similar in design and appearance to the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers that operated on Mars from 2004-2018.

The orbiter possesses a high-resolution camera similar to the HiRISE instrument on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A spectrometer and radar will contribute to the study of the Martian surface and subsurface. The Tianwen 1 orbiter also carries a magnetometer and particle detector to study the Martian space environment.

Perseverance, Hope and Tianwen 1 will all reach Mars in February 2021. Mars is hard, and nothing is guaranteed. We wish each mission success.

The weekly roundup: The morning sky

Venus is a shining beacon in the pre-dawn east. Earth’s evil twin will continue to light your way in the morning for the next several months. Venus is so bright that it’s possible to see it even after the sun rises. How late can you spot it? Mars rises right around midnight and is very high in the south by morning. As you observe Mars, think about the three spacecraft in this article as they travel more than 300,000,000 miles to reach the red planet.

The evening sky

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE is still visible in binoculars or any telescope, but it is getting dimmer and harder to spot as it travels toward the outer solar system along its 6,800-year orbit. It’s still worth a look and has been a spectacular sight. The nearly full moon joins the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn in the south east after sunset on Aug. 1. Distant Pluto, invisible to the naked eye, hangs in between Saturn and Jupiter.

Dan Price is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and informal educator. He leads the Night Sky tours at Josephine Sculpture Park. Learn about the Voyager Golden Record in the new video on his Starpointe Astronomy YouTube channel. Have a question about astronomy or space science? Send an email to and it might be featured in a future column.

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