Arab world’s first interplanetary spacecraft safely arrives at Mars

Artist’s concept of the Hope spacecraft arriving in orbit around Mars. Credit: MBRSC

The United Arab Emirates became the fifth nation or space agency to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars on Tuesday with the arrival of Hope, a probe built in partnership with U.S. scientists to obtain a unique global perspective on the Red Planet’s weather and climate.

The Hope spacecraft fired a cluster of rocket jets to maneuver into orbit beginning at 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT) Tuesday, while tense engineers gathered at the mission control center in Dubai monitored telemetry streaming back from the probe.

It took about 11 minutes for radio signals traveling at the speed of light to journey the nearly 119 million miles (191 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth. The time delay meant the planned 27-minute engine burn was nearly halfway over by the time engineers confirmed it started.

Data streaming down from the Hope spacecraft indicated the probe successfully entered orbit around Mars around 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT).

Omran Sharaf, project director for the Emirates Mars Mission, announced the completion of the successful Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver, prompting applause and fist bumps in the control center at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai. The famous super-tall Burj Khalifa tower lit up with a special display celebrating the achievement, the first time a spacecraft from the Arab world has reached another planet.

Seven years ago, the Emirates Mars Mission was just an idea. The UAE had never developed a deep space mission when the government announced the Hope project in 2014.

Now the Emirati mission makes the UAE the fifth entity to put a satellite into orbit around Mars, following the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organization.

“I think people are in shock, myself included, but there’s a lot of relief, maybe a bit of disbelief on arriving at this milestone and arriving exactly as planned,” said Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE’s minister of state for advanced sciences, and chair of the UAE Space Agency. “It’s been an amazing journey with a lot of obstacles and a lot of challenges, and to see this come to fruition … We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.”

Al Amiri said a quick-look assessment showed the spacecraft was in orbit around Mars following its make-or-break rocket burn, which was designed to scrub more than 2,200 mph (about 1,000 meters per second) of velocity from Hope’s trajectory relative to Mars. The spacecraft targeted an initial “capture orbit” ranging between 600 miles and 30,700 miles (1,000-by-49,380 kilometers) from Mars.

It will take several hours to determine to exact orbit achieved by the Hope, or Al Amal, spacecraft, Al Amiri said. The ground team in Dubai plans a follow-up press conference Wednesday to discuss details of the orbit insertion maneuver.

Developed for $200 million, a fraction of the cost of NASA’s recent Mars orbiters, the Emirates Mars Mission was conceived with the goals of inspiring Arab youth, fostering new high-tech development in the UAE, and collecting new scientific data on the Red Planet.

Al Amiri said the mission had succeeded in the first two objectives before it even arrived at Mars.

“Within a circle of people within the Arab region that I’m with, a lot of them are people that I’ve had discussions with even prior to the launch of this mission, and they were highly speculative with whether or not we will be able to achieve this objective,” Al Amiri said last month. “And for them it’s been a reality check on what is possible from this region, and a reality check on how we can go about creating more and more positive change from the region. And I think a lot of the youth, especially over the course of at least the last six to seven years, have been really frustrated with instability and are looking for the creation of stability.

“Mars has been visible in the sky,” she said. “Almost every child that I come into daily contact with … they’ll be able to point out Mars in the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever lived through a time where that was normal conversation in family settings.”

The scientific promise of the Emirates Mars Mission hinged on a good outcome of Mars Orbit Insertion, or MOI, maneuver, and the Hope spacecraft had just one chance to get it right.

“We took a risk on the methodology that we developed this mission on, but this risk paid off today,” Al Amiri told Spaceflight Now Tuesday. “We really hope the scientific mission starts with the same remarkable entrance into Mars orbit that we’ve seen today.”

“MOI was the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to stresses and pressures it has never before faced,” Sharaf said in a statement. “While we have spent six years designing, testing and retesting the system, there is no way to fully simulate the impacts of the deceleration and navigation required to achieve MOI autonomously. With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”

The Emirates Mars Mission launched July 19 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, riding a Japanese H-2A rocket procured by the UAE government from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The H-2A hurled the 3,000-pound (1,350-kilogram) Hope spacecraft on a high-speed trajectory escaping the bonds of Earth’s gravity.

After deploying its solar panels and completing a post-launch checkout, the spacecraft fired its thrusters several times to adjust its course toward Mars, setting the stage for the critical MOI maneuver Tuesday.

“Anything that you want to attempt to do in space is hard,” said Pete Withnell, program manager for the Emirates Mars Mission at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a partner on the project. “And something as sporty as getting a spacecraft into orbit around another planet is even harder.

“Many people may know the statistics,” Withnell said in a virtual press briefing in late January. “Less than half of those spacecraft that have been sent to Mars have actually made it successfully.”

But the UAE made it to Mars on its first try.

The Hope spacecraft traveled 307 million miles (494 million kilometers) across the solar system to reach the Red Planet. Navigators calculated the probe’s trajectory with the precision required for an archer to hit a 2-millimeter target from a kilometer away, according to Withnell.

The science instruments will collect their first data at the Red Planet in the coming weeks, setting the stage for Hope to move into an operational science orbit by mid-May that ranges between approximately 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) and 26,700 miles (43,000 kilometers) above Mars.

During parts of each 55-hour semi-synchronous orbit, the spacecraft’s move at roughly the same speed around Mars as the planet’s rotation. That will give the orbiter’s science instruments sustained views of the same region of Mars in much the same way weather satellites in geostationary orbit provide uninterrupted views of the same part of Earth.

In addition to the LASP facility in Colorado — where the spacecraft was built — and Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center — where the probe will be operated — scientists from Arizona State University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Northern Arizona University contributed to the Hope mission.

The UAE’s government set the nation on a course for the Emirates Mars Mission with the goal of reaching the Red Planet by the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence in 1971.

The Emirati Mars Mission, or Hope spacecraft, is pictured inside a clean room during ground testing. Credit: MBRSC

More than 450 people worked on the Emirates Mars Mission, according to UAE officials. About 200 members of the team have come from the UAE, and about 150 people from LASP in Colorado have worked on the project. Of the 200 Emiratis assigned to the mission, more than a third have been women.

David Brain, the Hope mission’s deputy science lead at LASP in Colorado, said the instruments aboard the Hope spacecraft are similar to sensors flown on past space missions, but the UAE’s probe will go into a unique orbit that lingers higher above Mars.

The Emirates Mars Mission will put the instruments “into this new orbit that opens up all new science for us to investigate the Martian atmosphere,” Brain said. “So there are three aspects of the science orbit that are important. No. 1, it’s a very high altitude orbit, much higher than most other Mars science missions. That high-altitude orbit lets our instruments observe Mars from the global perspective. We’ll always be seeing roughly half of Mars, no matter where we are in the orbit when we look at the planet.

“No. 2, the orbit is fairly close to parallel with the Mars equator, and by this, I mean something like how the moon orbits Earth,” Brain said. “EMM will have a moon-like orbit around the planet unlike many other Mars spacecraft, which orbits over the top of the North Pole, and then over the bottom of the South Pole. They have highly inclined orbits that are very polar. Those kinds of orbits are great for science, but they force the spacecraft to always observe at the same time of day, 2 a.m., 2 p.m. 2 a.m., 2 p.m. When you lay that orbit on its side like the moon orbits the Earth, suddenly every time you go around the planet, you visit at every time of day. You get above midnight, you get above noon, you get above 3 p.m. You’ve seen all the times of day, which is great for our science.”

“The last part of the orbit that’s important here is that it still is elliptical. Sometimes the spacecraft is close to Mars, sometimes far from Mars,” Brain said. “So when it’s far from Mars, it’s moving slowly, it’s above one time of day, while Mars spins underneath. So it can observe many geographic regions at a single time of day. When the whole probe gets close to Mars it speeds up, and it can match the speed at which Mars is spinning on its axis. It can hover above a single geographic region like the big volcano Olympus Mons and study the atmosphere there at many times of day.”

Many of the science goals of the Emirates Mars Mission build on discoveries made by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, which arrived at the Red Planet in 2014. Scientists have analyzed data from the MAVEN mission to confirm that the bombardment of the solar wind and radiation stripped away the Martian atmosphere, transforming the planet from a warmer, wetter world into the barren planet of today.

The Hope probe will track oxygen and hydrogen escaping from the Martian atmosphere into space, and will peer deeper into the planet’s atmosphere than MAVEN. Scientists want to investigate possible links between Martian weather and climate with the escape of atmospheric particles.

A color camera on the mission was developed by LASP at the University of Colorado at Boulder and MBRSC. Infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers were produced by LASP, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Emirati scientists.

“Overall, the science goal of EMM is to get a global understanding of sort of how the atmosphere works together, transport in the atmosphere, how weather above Olympus Mons influences weather completely on the other side of the planet, or at a different time,” Brain said.

“The first science objective is to understand the lower atmosphere of Mars in a global sense, and how the lower atmosphere of Mars varies geographically with time of day, and over the Martian seasons,” Brain said.

This infographic illustrates the Hope mission’s journey to Mars. Credit: MBRSC

The Hope mission will also probe the outermost layers of the Martian atmosphere, where hydrogen and oxygen are escaping into space.

“We’ve learned from past missions that the loss of the atmosphere over time, over Martian history, we think, is important. But we need to do more to quantify that loss to understand how the rest of the atmosphere influences that loss to space,” Brain said.

The Hope spacecraft’s other primary science goal is to study the link between weather in the lower atmosphere and the conditions at the top of the atmosphere.

“If there’s a dust storm in the lower atmosphere, does atmospheric escape increase, and how?” Brain said. “If there is some change in the lower atmosphere, or a bunch of cloud formations, how does the upper atmosphere respond? In the past we’ve had missions that study the upper atmosphere, we’ve had missions to study the lower atmosphere, usually at just a single time of day, but we haven’t had a lot of observations that help us how understand how the atmosphere works from bottom to top, so EMM will provide that information.”

“We’re going to get complete coverage of the Martian atmosphere every nine Martian days, and by complete coverage, I mean we will have observed every geographic region at every time of day every nine days,” Brain said.

Two more international robotic Mars missions are on the heels of the Hope spacecraft.

China’s Tianwen 1 orbiter and rover are scheduled to arrive at Mars on Wednesday. If successful, the arrival will make China the sixth nation to send a spacecraft to the Red Planet.

The Tianwen 1 mission’s rover will remain attached to its parent spacecraft in orbit around Mars until it attempts a landing in May.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is on track to reach Mars on Feb. 18, carrying sophisticated instruments designed to study the ancient habitability of the planet. Perseverance will also gather rock samples for return to Earth by a future mission.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.