The United Arab Emirates’ first mission to Mars is almost ready for a rendezvous with the red planet.
The Emirates Mars Mission, known as the Hope Probe, will go into orbit around Mars on February 9.
The mission was one of three that launched to Mars from Earth in July, including NASA’s Perseverance rover and China’s Tianwen-1 mission. Hope will orbit the planet, Tianwen-1 will orbit the planet and land on it and Perseverance will land on Mars.
All three missions launched around the same time due to an alignment between Mars and the Earth on the same side of the sun, making for a more efficient journey to Mars.
The Hope Probe will be the first of these missions to arrive at Mars. The UAE Space Agency will share live coverage of Hope’s arrival on February 9 beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET on its website.
When the spacecraft arrives, the Hope Probe will mark the UAE as only the fifth country in history to reach the red planet. The ambitions of the mission don’t stop there.
The probe, along with its three scientific instruments, is expected to create the first complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere. The instruments will collect different data points on the atmosphere to also gauge seasonal and daily changes.
This information will provide scientists with an idea of what climate dynamics and weather are like in different layers of the Martian atmosphere. Together, this will shed light on how energy and particles, like oxygen and hydrogen, are moved through the atmosphere and how they even escape Mars.
“We’ve learned from past missions that the loss of the atmosphere over time over Martian history is important,” said David Brain, deputy principal investigator for MAVEN orbiter, or the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
“We need to do more to quantify that loss and to understand how the rest of the atmosphere influences that loss from a global perspective.”
The mission team said the spacecraft is very healthy and behaving exactly as it’s supposed to in the days before arrival during a press conference Thursday.
Ramping up for the mission’s arrival at Mars has been an emotional roller coaster, said Her Excellency Sarah bint Yousef Al Amiri, chairperson at the UAE Space Agency and minister of state for advanced sciences in the UAE.
“Every point of celebration is followed by several points of worry waiting for the next points of celebration,” she said.
“On the other hand, one of our mission objectives was to stimulate a lot of students and an entire society within STEM. And we’ve seen a large shift with the mindset of students, first and foremost, within the Emirates. But we’ve also seen a lot of keen engagement within the region, a region that is typically known to be unstable, and that has triggered a lot of thoughts with regards to what is possible.”
Arrival at Mars
The Hope Probe is moving with such speed toward Mars that if it doesn’t slow down appropriately upon arrival, the spacecraft will literally use Mars’ gravity to slingshot it through deep space.
Almost half of the spacecraft’s fuel will be used to slow it down enough for the spacecraft to be captured by Mars’ gravity and go into orbit.
By firing its thrusters for 30 minutes before reaching Mars, it will slow down from a speed of more than 75,185 miles per hour to 11,184 miles per hour.
For reference, when the Perseverance rover arrives to land on Mars on February 18, it will hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour and only has seven minutes to decelerate for a soft landing on the surface.
The Hope Probe’s team considers this phase of the spacecraft’s arrival at Mars, called the Mars Orbit Insertion phase, just as critical and risky as launching the spacecraft. And much like Perseverance will essentially land itself on Mars without any interference from NASA, Hope will be able to react to any issues and take care of itself, to some degree.
Once Hope has established an orbit around Mars, it will make contact with Earth through a ground station in Spain. One-way light time between Mars and the Earth takes between 10 and 11 minutes, so the signal will be slightly delayed.
“Less than half of the spacecraft that have been sent to Mars have actually made it successfully,” said Pete Withnell, program manager for the mission at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “But this is a highly practiced, highly simulated and highly analyzed event. I cannot imagine being better prepared than we are right now.”
Capturing a new view
After the gravity of Mars captures Hope, it will enter an elliptical orbit around the planet, coming as close as 621 miles above the Martian surface and as distant as 30,683 miles from it. It will take Hope about 40 hours to complete one orbit.
The probe will send back its first image of Mars during this time.
Hope will stay in this phase, called the capture orbit, between February and mid-May during the transition stage of the mission, according to Brain.
During this transition, the ground teams will send some commands to the spacecraft to test the instruments and make observations of Mars to see if any of the instruments need tweaking.
Then, it will be time to maneuver Hope into the science orbit which will allow the probe’s instruments to begin capturing scientific data of Mars.
Hope will complete one scientific orbit of the planet every 55 hours. This orbit will provide the first global picture of weather and atmospheric dynamics on Mars, which will be shared with the scientific community via the mission’s data center.
The mission is expected to last for two years, with the possibility of being extended for a third year.
The probe will be in a different orbit from past spacecraft that have visited Mars.
“It’s a very high altitude orbit, much higher than any other Mars science missions,” Brain said. “In that high altitude orbit, where our instruments observe Mars from the global perspective, will always be seeing roughly half of Mars no matter where we are in the orbit when we look at the planet.”
The orbit will take the probe fairly close to parallel with the Martian equator, which will enable the spacecraft to capture different times of day on the planet. And the fact that it’s an elliptical, or oval-shaped, orbit means that observations will be captured close to as well as distant from Mars.
“It can observe many geographic regions at a single time of day when the whole probe gets close to Mars and speeds up, and it can match the speed at which Mars is spinning on its axis,” Brain said. “It can hover above a single geographic region like the big volcano, Olympus Mons, and study the atmosphere there at many times of day.”
Every nine days of the mission, the probe will have completely captured a picture of the Martian atmosphere.
“We will have observed every geographic region at every time of day, every nine days,” Brain said.