The United Arab Emirates launched its first mission to Mars on Monday – the Arab world’s first – as it strives to develop its scientific and technological capabilities and reduce its reliance on oil.
The Hope Probe blasted off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 6:58 am Japanese time on Monday (21:58 GMT on Sunday) for a seven-month journey to the red planet, where it will orbit and send back data about the atmosphere.
Two previous attempts to launch the probe in the past week had to be called off because of adverse weather.
Hope’s arrival in February 2021 is set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s formation.
Just over an hour after launch, the probe deployed solar panels to power its systems and established radio communication with the mission on earth.
Her Excellency Sarah Al Amiri, the science lead on Hope, spoke of her excitement and relief in seeing the rocket climb successfully into the sky. Also, she stated the impact on her country would be the same as that on America when its people watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing 51 years ago, also on 20 July.
“It was an anchor for an entire generation that stimulated everyone that watched it to push further and to dream bigger,” she told BBC News.
“Today I am really glad that the children in the Emirates will wake up on the morning of the 20th of July having an anchor project of their own, having a new reality, having new possibilities, allowing them to further contribute and to create a larger impact on the world.”
There are currently eight active missions exploring Mars; some orbit the planet and some have landed on its surface. China and the United States each plan to send another this year.
The UAE government told the project team it couldn’t purchase the spacecraft from a big, foreign corporation; it had to build the satellite itself.
This meant going into partnership with American universities that had the necessary experience. Emirati and US engineers and scientists worked alongside each other to design and build the spacecraft systems and the three onboard instruments that will study the planet.
The Emirates Mars Mission has cost $200m, according to Minister for Advanced Sciences Sarah Amiri. It aims to provide a complete picture of the planet’s atmosphere for the first time, studying daily and seasonal changes.
The UAE first announced plans for the mission in 2014 and launched a National Space Programme in 2017 to develop local expertise. Its population of 9.4 million people, most of whom are foreign workers, lacks the scientific and industrial base of the big space-faring nations.
It has an ambitious plan for a Mars settlement by 2117.
The UAE craft is one of three missions heading to Mars this month.
The UAE has limited experience of designing and manufacturing spacecraft – and yet here it is attempting something only the US, Russia, Europe and India have succeeded in doing. But it speaks to the Emiratis’ ambition that they should dare to take on this challenge.
Their engineers, mentored by American experts, have produced a sophisticated probe in just six years – and when this satellite gets to Mars, it’s expected to deliver novel science, revealing fresh insights on the workings of the planet’s atmosphere.
The Emiratis didn’t want to do “me too” science; they didn’t want to turn up at the Red Planet and repeat measurements that had already been made by others. Therefore, they went to a US space agency (NASA) advisory committee called the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) and asked what research a UAE probe could usefully add to the current state of knowledge.
The satellite is one of several projects the UAE government says signals its intention to move the country away from dependence on oil and gas and towards a future based on a knowledge economy.
However, as ever when it comes to Mars, the risks are high. A half of all missions sent to the Red Planet have failed. Hope project director, Omran Sharaf, recognizes the dangers but insists his country is right to try.
“This is a research and development mission and, yes, failure is an option,” he told BBC News.
“However, failure to progress as a nation is not an option. And what matters the most here is the capacity and the capability that the UAE gained out of this mission, and the knowledge it brought into the country.”
“The desire to see every piece of real estate at every time of day ended up making the orbit very large and elliptical,” explained core science team lead on Hope, David Brain from LASP.
“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 the day. And at other times, we’ll be letting Mars spin underneath us.
“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.”
Hazza al-Mansouri became the first Emirati in space last September when he flew to the International Space Station.
It will track features such as lofted dust, which on Mars hugely influences the temperature of the atmosphere.
It will also look at what’s happening with the behavior of neutral atoms of hydrogen and oxygen right at the top of the atmosphere. There’s a suspicion these atoms play a significant role in the ongoing erosion of Mars’ atmosphere by the energetic particles that stream away from the Sun.
This plays into the story of why the planet is now missing most of the water it had early in its history.
Emiratis and Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) worked with US educational institutions to develop and build the Hope Probe.
The MBRSC space centre in Dubai will oversee the spacecraft during its 494 million km (307 million miles) journey at an average speed of 121,000kph.