UAE’s Mars probe to target more than science at the red planet

Hope orbiter could begin expansion of UAE’s space sector when it launches

UPDATE: The Hope spacecraft launched Sunday at 5:58 p.m. Eastern U.S. time. The probe separated from its H-IIA rocket about an hour after liftoff, the UAE Space Agency confirmed in a tweet

When a Mini Cooper-sized spacecraft lifts off from Japan bound for Mars, it will carry an ultraviolet light camera, infrared and ultraviolet light spectrometers, and the determination of the United Arab Emirates to establish itself as a prominent spacefaring nation.

The probe, called Hope, will carry out the country’s first deep space mission. It is due to arrive in orbit around Mars in February 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s founding.

“The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf told reporters during a prelaunch briefing. He was among the engineers who built KhalifaSat, the UAE’s first domestically built Earth observation satellite launched in 2018. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more.”

The spacecraft is scheduled to separate from its H-IIA rocket approximately an hour after launch. From there, Hope will deploy its solar panels and fire its thrusters, beginning the seven-month journey toward Mars. Once reaching Mars’ orbit, the spacecraft will spend a Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years, cataloging the changing seasons and daily weather variations and their effect on the rate at which hydrogen and oxygen are shed by the upper atmosphere. Previous missions have recorded this atmospheric loss, but Hope will focus specifically on the role surface conditions have played in transforming Mars into a dry, barren planet, said Sarah Al Amiri, UAE’s minister of state for advanced sciences and the science lead for Hope.

“So if there’s a dust storm on Mars, or changes in temperature, how does that impact rates of atmospheric escape, and particularly escape of hydrogen and oxygen from the outer atmosphere?” she said.

Success would prove that UAE can make spacecraft quickly and on budget. In 2014, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan directed the then newly created UAE Space Agency to begin the project, giving engineers six years and $200 million to build and launch a spacecraft. The strict timeline prompted Sharaf and his colleagues at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai to hire U.S. scientists and researchers for their expertise in building spacecraft. A team of Emirati engineers designed, built and assembled the spacecraft at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, LASP, at the University of Colorado Boulder alongside a team of U.S. engineers. The work was done under a contract between the UAE space center and LASP that was reviewed by the U.S. Commerce Department to ensure compliance with export control requirements.

That hands-on experience is the “real outcome” of the Mars mission, LASP program manager Pete Withnell told reporters at the briefing.

Even if Hope never reaches Mars, “the knowledge that was generated” will “be retained” by UAE engineers, said Withnell, giving the country a solid foundation for future space missions.

Launch Details

  • WHAT: H-II2 rocket supplied by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
  • WHERE: Tanegashima Space Center, Japan
  • WHEN: Monday at 6:58 a.m. local time (Sunday at 5:58 p.m. Eastern U.S. time)
  • WATCH: 

UAE’s Mars probe to target more than science at the red planet