Mars Mission From U.A.E. to Arrive and Orbit Red Planet

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The Hope spacecraft will fire its engines on Tuesday, aiming to be grappled by the planet’s gravity and begin its atmospheric science studies.

The first in a parade of three new visitors to Mars arrives Tuesday when a robotic probe named Hope, the first interplanetary mission undertaken by an Arab nation, is to enter orbit.

For people in the United Arab Emirates, just getting there has become a source of pride. Over the weekend, a number of prominent buildings and monuments in the wealthy oil country, which is about the size of Maine, were lit up in red in honor of Mars, the red planet.

“From the U.A.E. government’s perspective, basically 90 percent of this mission has been achieved successfully,” said Omran Sharaf, the project manager of Hope.

For the remaining 10 percent, there is now little to do but watch and wait as the spacecraft executes instructions already loaded into its computer.

Sarah al-Amiri, who leads the science portion of the mission, said she had felt a full of range of emotions when the spacecraft was launched last summer. But now as it approaches Mars, “This is further intensifying them,” she said.

Once in orbit, the spacecraft can begin its study of the red planet’s atmosphere and weather.

But if some problem with the spacecraft causes it to miss Mars and sail off into the solar system, that would most likely be the end of the mission. “If you don’t arrive, you don’t arrive,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

On Tuesday at 7:42 p.m. in the U.A.E. — 10:42 a.m. Eastern time — controllers at the mission operations center in Dubai will receive word from the spacecraft that it has started firing thrusters to slow itself down and allow it to fall into the thrall of the gravity of Mars.

Because it will take 11 minutes for the radio signal to travel to Earth from Mars, the thruster firing will actually have started 11 minutes earlier, and if anything has gone wrong, it will already be too late.

Sarah al-Amiri, who heads the science portion of the Hope mission, in 2015.
Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

Twenty-seven minutes later, the thrusters will shut off. Five minutes after the end of the firing, the spacecraft will pass behind Mars and be out of contact for 15 minutes. When it re-emerges, controllers can confirm whether it is zipping along a highly elliptical path around Mars.

The Hope Spacecraft

The United Arab Emirates’ first Mars mission aims to investigate the Martian atmosphere. The orbiter’s giant solar panel wings will deploy in space after launch.

ANTENNA

A six-foot antenna will communicate with Earth

THERMAL BLANKET

A protective layer of insulation around the orbiter gives it a gold appearance

SOLAR PANELS

Will unfurl after launch and charge the onboard battery

Hope is about as tall as a person and weighs almost 3,000 pounds

CAMERA

Will capture high-resolution images of Mars

Infrared Spectrometer

Will study dust, ice clouds, water vapor and temperature in the lower atmosphere

ULTRAVIOLET SPECTROMETER

Will investigate carbon monoxide, hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere

ANTENNA

A six-foot antenna will communicate with Earth

THERMAL BLANKET

To protect from extreme temperatures

Hope is about as tall as a person and weighs almost 3,000 pounds

SOLAR PANELS

Will charge the onboard battery

Camera

Infrared Spectrometer

Ultraviolet Spectrometer

Antenna

Thermal

Blanket

Hope is about as tall as a person

Solar

Panels

Camera

Infrared Spectrometer

Ultraviolet Spectrometer

By Eleanor Lutz | Source: Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center

The mission is to spend two years studying how dust storms and other weather conditions near the surface affect the speed at which Martian air is leaking away into outer space.

One day after the Hope maneuver, a Chinese spacecraft, Tianwen-1, is to also enter orbit around Mars. The Chinese mission is carrying a lander and a rover to explore a large impact basin called Utopia Planitia, but those are not to detach from the orbiter and head to the surface until May.

Then on Thursday next week, NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, will also arrive at Mars. Without first entering orbit, it will instead quickly decelerate from 12,000 miles per hour to a complete stop on the surface of Mars, what NASA calls “seven minutes of terror.”

Perseverance’s target is Jezero Crater, a dried-up lake that appears to be a site where signs of life, if life ever arose on Mars, could be preserved.

All three missions launched last July to take advantage of a favorable alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs every 26 months.

While NASA has decades of experience launching spacecraft to other planets and China has in recent years successfully sent a series of robotic missions to the moon, the United Arab Emirates is a newcomer to planetary science.

The Hope mission is an unusual collaboration between the United Arab Emirates and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a research institute at the University of Colorado that has been working on space missions for more than half a century.

Although the spacecraft was built in Colorado, many engineers from the U.A.E. spent years living there and gaining expertise as they worked with their more experienced American counterparts.

Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. al-Amiri said the mission had also spurred wider interest in space, with people in the U.A.E. asking questions like why is there a delay in communications between Earth and Mars and why is it hard to enter orbit.

“It’s been excellent to further science communication with the general public and gain an understanding in an area which was largely ignored, not only within the country, but within the region,” Ms. al-Amiri said. “It wasn’t something that was a topic of conversation.”

Because the U.A.E. also does not have rockets or launching pads, the Hope spacecraft traveled to Japan for its lift to space, launching in July on an H-IIA rocket built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited.

In the seven months since, the spacecraft, which weighs about 3,000 pounds and is about the size of an S.U.V., has traveled 300 million miles. Mission controllers were able to forgo the two final planned course corrections, because the spacecraft remained right on target.

Along the way, the spacecraft was able to perform some bonus science observations. In one, Hope and BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese spacecraft that is on a spiraling path to Mercury, turned to face each other and made identical measurements of the hydrogen between the two spacecraft. That should help scientists working on both missions to calibrate their instruments as well as learn some new information about the solar system.

Another set of observations attempted to track interplanetary dust.

“The opportunity presented itself, and we know that these data sets are quite rare for scientists who are studying that type of science, and therefore, we hope to release it soon and benefit the community,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

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