Five Things to Know About UAE’s First Mission to Mars

Artist's conception of the UAE's Hope Probe. (Image: UAE Space Agency)
Artist's conception of the UAE's Hope Probe. (Image: UAE Space Agency)

The Emirates Hope Mission, scheduled to launch this Friday, is the first Arab attempt to reach the Red Planet. Here’s how the UAE will endeavour to make history.

The Hope spacecraft, or Al Amal, was supposed to launch today from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan, but bad weather has bumped the launch to Friday, July 17. The 3,000-pound (1,350-kilogram) spacecraft — essentially a Martian weather satellite — will be delivered to space and nudged toward Mars atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-2A rocket. Come Friday, you’ll be able to watch the action here.

Hope, which will enter into orbit around Mars in February 2021, will be used to study the planet’s atmosphere and weather. Assuming all goes well, this will mark the first Arab mission to Mars, or any other planet for that matter.

The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) is one of three scheduled missions to the Red Planet during the now-open launch window, the others being NASA’s Perseverance rover, launching in two weeks, and China’s Tianwen-1 lander. (The European and Russian ExoMars mission had to be postponed due to technical delays and the covid-19 pandemic.) This launch window happens once every 26 months, offering the most direct route from Earth to the Red Planet.

Here are five things to know about this historic mission.

Made in the UAE — but With a Little Help From Friends

In the works since 2013, the Hope project was planned, managed, and implemented by an Emirati team, with oversight and funding coming from the UAE Space Agency, according to Arab News.

It cost the UAE some $US200 ($287) million to build, which includes launch expenses contracted out to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. That’s a fairly modest price tag considering the $US670 ($962) million it cost NASA to build the MAVEN spacecraft, a comparable mission launched to Mars in 2013. Still, nothing compares to India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, with its remarkably low price tag of $US74 ($106) million.

The Hope satellite during development. (Image: UAE Space Agency)

The UAE had never embarked on a project like this before, so it smartly sought out expertise from U.S. institutions, including the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, which had previously worked on the MAVEN mission. As BBC reports, Emirati and U.S. engineers collaborated on the design and manufacturing of the spacecraft.

“It’s one thing to tell somebody how to ride a bike but until you’ve done it, you don’t really understand what it’s like. Well, it’s the same with a spacecraft,” Brett Landin, a senior systems engineer at LASP, told the BBC. “I could give you the process for fuelling a spacecraft, but until you’ve put on an escape suit and transferred 800 kg [1,765 pounds] of highly volatile rocket fuel from storage tanks into the spacecraft, you don’t really know what it’s like.”

Fair point.

A Point of National Pride

The Emirates Hope Mission will coincide with the UAE’s upcoming 50th anniversary as a nation, which is likely no coincidence.

Speaking to SpaceflightNow, Omran Sharaf, project manager for the EMM, said the “identity of the mission is not just about the UAE, it’s also for the Arab world.” The mission is “supposed to inspire the Arab youth, and send a message of hope to them, and a message that basically tells them if a country like the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you guys can do much more given the history you have, given the human talent that you have,” he said.

An Arab expedition to Mars will undoubtedly kindle a renewed sense of national pride, but the mission, it is hoped, will also “inspire future Arab generations to pursue space science,” according to the EMM website. What’s more, a “sustainable, future-proof economy is a knowledge-based economy,” writes the UAE Space Agency.

The investment in STEM fields, and space tech in particular, is a smart move for the UAE, especially in consideration of tanking oil prices.

A Unique Orbit for Doing Science

Once at Mars, Hope will enter into a unique equatorial orbit high above the Red Planet. Moving in the same direction as the planet’s rotation, Hope will complete a single orbit once every 55 hours or so. This will allow the probe’s instruments to gaze at a single target for prolonged periods.

The journey to Mars. (Image: UAE Space Agency)

“The desire to see every piece of real estate at every time of day ended up making the orbit very large and elliptical,” LASP scientist David Brain told the BBC. “By making those choices, we will for example be able to hover over Olympus Mons (the largest volcano in the Solar System) as Olympus Mons moves through different times of day. And at other times, we’ll be letting Mars spin underneath us,” to which he added: “We’ll get full disc images of Mars, but our camera has filters, so we’ll be doing science with those images — getting global views with different goggles on, if you like.”

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The ‘First Weather Satellite for Mars’

Once in orbit, Hope will study the Martian atmosphere on a global scale. Data gathered by the probe will be used to track changes as influenced by the shifting seasons and as the Martian day turns to night. The probe will also be used to study the planet’s hydrogen and oxygen, some of which is leaching out into space; Hope will study weather patterns in both the lower and middle atmosphere to figure out why.

The Hope probe should also answer questions about Mars’s early history, and how this planet, once wet and blanketed by a thick atmosphere, became the cold, dry, and desolate place it is today.

Being the weather satellite that it is, the probe will improve our understanding of severe weather conditions on Mars, including gigantic dust towers and global dust storms that appear from time to time, such as the epic one that ended the Opportunity mission in 2018.

“We are the very first weather satellite for Mars,” explained Sarah al-Amiri, deputy project manager for the Hope mission, during a webinar back in June. “Past missions have only sporadically studied atmospheric conditions, looking at specific locations at specific times. It’s like me telling you to study Earth at different times of the day in Alaska, London, and the UAE, and then be able to form a complete picture of the weather and climate,” she said.

At a more broader, conceptual level, the Hope satellite will be of assistance to scientists trying to assess the planet’s prior or even current ability to host life. And in addition to refining our sense of Mars as a geological system, Hope will prepare scientists for a future crewed mission to the Red Planet, according to the UAE Space Agency.

Three Tools for the Job

To fulfil these ambitious goals, the Hope spacecraft is equipped with three primary scientific instruments: a camera, an infrared spectrometer, and an ultraviolet spectrometer.

Hope probe instruments. (Image: UAE Space Agency)

The camera, called Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI), will capture high-resolution images of Mars, measure the depth of water ice in the atmosphere, and study the Martian ozone layer, among other things.

The Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) will scan the lower Martian atmosphere in the infrared band, allowing for observations of dust, ice clouds, and water vapour. This instrument can also take the temperature of the surface and lower atmosphere.

The Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) will be used to measure the distribution of carbon monoxide, oxygen, and hydrogen at various altitudes and across the Martian seasons. With this data, scientists will compile a three-dimensional map, showing the distribution of oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere.

Hope should dramatically improve our understanding of the Red Planet, but we’ll have to wait until early next year for the data to start pouring in. Best of luck to the UAE as the team prepares for this historic launch on Friday.