The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is set to make history by becoming the first Arab nation to launch a spacecraft to Mars. The Emirates Mars Mission, also known as the Hope Mars Mission, will launch on July 14 and is scheduled to enter orbit around Mars in February 2021 where it will collect data on the Martian atmosphere, including looking at the relationship between the upper and lower layers of the atmosphere and observing how it changes between seasons.
The Hope spacecraft weighs 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) including fuel, and is less than 3 meters (about 10 feet) long, making it around the size of a small SUV. It is equipped with three solar panel wings to provide power for charging its batteries, running with a total of just 477 watts.
Reaching Mars is a major challenge for any agency, especially when trying to get there for the first time. “It’s a very small target” to get into Mars orbit, Pete Withnell, Program Manager at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at University Colorado Boulder and scientist on the Hope mission, explained to reporters at a press conference. “It’s equivalent to an archer hitting 21millimeter target 1 kilometer away. So this is not for the faint of heart.”
When asked if he was worried about the outcome of the mission, considering India and Israel‘s recent failed attempts at moon landings, Omran Sharaf, Project Lead for the Hope mission, said that even if the craft failed to reach Mars, the mission would still have been worth pursuing: “It’s a big challenge. It’s risky. But it’s not about reaching there. For the Emirates, it’s more about the journey and the impact. Reaching there is one of the goals. But that doesn’t mean the mission has failed if we don’t manage to get there.”
What Hope aims to discover
The aim of Hope is to gather data on the Martian atmosphere, looking at both the upper and lower atmospheres and how the two interact and change over the seasons. Other missions have looked at this topic too, although Hope will be unusual in that it will gather a more broad view of the atmosphere across the planet and through time.
“This mission is complementary to other missions,” said Her Excellency Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences. “Prior [Mars] missions, their orbits are mostly locked at a local time, so they capture an understanding of the lower atmosphere of Mars at a particular time of the mission. And other missions are also looking at atmospheric escape.
The mission will simultaneously investigate atmospheric loss, the process through which gases in the atmosphere are lost into outer space. It will look at the movement of hydrogen and oxygen into space, allowing the correlation of this atmospheric loss with data on weather activity in the lower atmosphere. This will fill in gaps in knowledge about the Martian atmosphere, Al Amiri said, complementing other research done by projects such as NASA’s MAVEN.
What happens on launch day
The Hope spacecraft will be launched from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, on a Mitsubishi MH-IIA rocket.
When it takes off from Earth, the launch vehicle will in fact start off pointing away from Mars. This is due to planetary protection requirements, which state that unintended hardware should not be sent to another planet as it could potentially contaminate the area.
The issue is that both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle will continue on the same heading in the microgravity environment of space. To get the spacecraft but not the launch vehicle to Mars, the launch points away from the planet. After separation of the two, the spacecraft uses its thrusters to perform adjustments until it is pointing in the right direction, toward Mars.
So around one hour after launch, the spacecraft will separate from the launcher, and around six to eight minutes after separation, the spacecraft will deploy its solar panels. These panels then need to be adjusted so they point toward the sun and can start collecting power.
Approximately 30 minutes after separation, ground control will be able to contact the spacecraft for the first time, via an antenna in Madrid, Spain which is part of the Deep Space Network communications system. The operations center in Dubai will then be able to control the spacecraft remotely.
From this point on, the controllers will use Hope’s reaction control thrusters to stabilize the craft, and it will be on its way to the red planet.
How to watch the launch
The launch will take place Tuesday, July 14 at 1:51 p.m. PST. You can watch the event streamed live on the UAE Space Agency’s website, where there will be streams with commentary in English or Arabic. There will be a video-only version without commentary as well.