When the newest inhabitant of Mars settles down, Planet Earth works on three more lander and at least two orbiters to join the scientific Mars Brigade.
NASA's InSight probe landed on Monday at the sprawling Red Equatorial Plain, less than 640 kilometers from Curiosity, the only other working robot on Mars.
That's about the distance from San Francisco to Pasadena, California, home of Mission Control for Mars.
InSight – the eighth successful Marslander – was due to end two years of trenching and earthquake monitoring when rovers from the US, Europe and China arrive. [NASA's NAS202020202020] NASA's hunt for rocks that might bear testimony to ancient microbial life and keep them in a safe place to return to Earth in the early 2030s. It targets a once-humid river delta in the Jezero Crater.
European-Russian ExoMars will also spy on a possible past life by drilling a few meters for chemical fossils. A spacecraft that was part of an ExoMars mission in 2016 landed on the red planet.
The Chinese Mars 2020 will contain both an orbiter and a lander. The United Arab Emirates want to send their first spacecraft to Mars in 2020. The orbiter is called hope or in Arabic Amal.
It seems that our neighbor Mars has a siren song for Earthlings, even though NASA is immediately catching our moon again.
Just three days after InSight's landing, NASA announced a new commercial lunar delivery program. The space agency has selected nine US companies to bring scientific and technological experiments to the lunar surface. The first start could be next year.
NASA wants to know how it works before trying something similar on Mars.
"The Moon is relative to commercial space right now," said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the NASA Science Mission office, which oversees the Moon Payload project.
At the same time, at the direction of the Trump administration, NASA is pushing for an orbiting outpost near the Moon for astronauts. According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, this would serve as a launching pad for moon landings and provide critical experiences near the homeland before people embark on a two- to three-year Mars mission.
Bridenstine is planning a trip to Mars for astronauts in the mid-2030s, admittedly a "very aggressive" target.
"The reality is, yes, your nation is extremely committed at the moment to get to Mars," Bridenstine said after InSight's touchdown, "and use the Moon as a tool to achieve that goal as quickly as possible. "
Mars is the obvious place for "boots on the ground" after the moon, said Zurbuchen.
What makes Mars so intriguing – researching robots and exploring humans – is its relatively easy accessibility, said Bruce Banerdt, chief scientist at InSight of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. The one-way trip lasts six months, every two years, when the planets are closest. The conditions are tough, but relatively hospitable. "A bit like Antarctica without snow," said Banerdt.
In addition, Mars is one of the most likely places to find life outside the earth, according to Banerdt.
Jupiter's Moon Europa Life may have been hosted or even preserved, but it would take so much longer and cost so much to get there that Banerdt said it was hard to imagine getting there soon.
It could be a life-seeking mission to Europe every decade, said Banerdt, while it is plausible that robotic sniffers launch into Mars every two years. That's five Mars missions for each one in Europe, he noted.
On Mars, there are currently two working space probes – InSight and Curiosity – and six functioning satellites from the US, Europe and India. The US is the only country that can successfully land and operate a spacecraft on Mars. Curiosity has been on the red plane since 2012. NASA's much older Opportunity Rover worked until June, when a global dust storm overruled it.
In search of geological but non-biological secrets deep into Mars, InSight is already delivering amazing images of A Place "No Man Has Ever Seen," JPL Director Michael Watkins said. These photos remind us that in order to be able to do science in this way, we "must be brave and we must be explorers."
NASA's Mars 2020 launch window will open on July 17 this year. The touchdown would be February 18, 2021.
"You're all invited back," Watkins said Monday.
Mars was named after the Roman god of war and is not very friendly to visitors