World War III.
Before COVID-19, few people might have guessed that the third World War would be waged by humanity against a microscopic foe. While humans have found a shared imperative in the fight against the coronavirus, we need something more than a common enemy to combat the isolation and loss that have come to define this pandemic. We have needed a unifying, engaging, and compellingly human endeavor. What has emerged in this regard is a wondrous scientific target: Mars, the red planet.
On July 20, the United Arab Emirates, along with its American academic partners, launched a remarkable spacecraft toward Mars. It is called “Amal,” which in Arabic means “Hope.” Amal lifted off on a Japanese H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, after an amazing journey that started in Boulder, Colorado, and went through final testing in Dubai. Space exploration formed a connection of three countries, united in a common purpose.
Amal will revolutionize the scientific view of Mars’ global atmosphere, and will give an unprecedented look at Martian weather patterns. It carries with it the aspirations of a whole new generation of young Arab citizens who see in the mission the hope for a better and more peaceful future, not only for the UAE, but the entire Middle East.
On July 23, China launched its most ambitious planetary mission yet called Tianwen-1. This program (which translates as “Questions for Heaven”) consists not only of the Mars orbiter spacecraft, but also a large lander.
The Tianwen lander is actually a rover craft that will explore the surface of Mars in the Utopia Planitia region and will continue humankind’s search for answers about whether life now exists — or ever existed — on another world.
Finally, on July 30, the United States sent its most impressive planetary mission yet on its way to Mars. The Perseverance probe, carrying a small rotorcraft called Ingenuity, will land on the Mars surface in February 2021. With the car-sized Perseverance rover go the aspirations of a whole community of planetary scientists who want to explore widely on the fascinatingly diverse surface of Earth’s sister planet.
Slipping the “surly bonds” of Mars gravity, Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to make controlled flight on another world. Together, Perseverance and Ingenuity may explore how a warm, wet region like Jezero Crater dried up 3 billion years ago. The mission may answer whether life long ago took hold in that then hospitable Mars region as it did under similar circumstances here on Earth also more than 3 billion years ago.
Famed author H.G. Wells in his book “War of the Worlds” envisioned advanced beings from Mars invading Earth, wreaking havoc upon civilizations around the globe. But in the final analysis, it was the microbes of Earth that infected the alien invaders in the Wells tale — those terrestrial germs defeated the Martians.
Today it is the viruses of Earth that are wreaking havoc with human life and human civilization. In some ways, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world community together in ways that science fiction writers long have imagined that an alien invasion might do.
So the benefits of space exploration are again coming into focus when global good news is in short supply. How gratifying to see that preparing missions actually heading off to Mars has brought our troubled world much closer together. People from many countries and all walks of life have been actively cheering the present multinational advance toward Mars here in 2020. In all of this, scientists from every corner of the Earth are awaiting the treasure trove of new Martian data that will start to flow in 2021.
It would be wonderful if the exploration of Mars brought with it the peaceful cooperation and collaboration that has so long eluded all of us on our home planet. We must surely recognize that disease is our shared nightmare, but exploration of space is our shared dream.
Daniel N. Baker is the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Michael McGrath is a senior adviser for international programs at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.