So on Tuesday, February 9, when the United Arab Emirates first attempt to put a spacecraft into Martian orbit, they will fight against all odds. If the Emirates Mars mission is successful, the UAE’s space program will only become the fifth in the world to reach the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, NASA, ESA and India.
“The team has prepared as well as it could possibly prepare to reach orbit around Mars,” says Sarah Al Amiri, president of the UAE Space Agency.
If all goes well, there is some pretty interesting science in store. But for the United Arab Emirates and their partners, the Emirates Mars mission is more than ending a journey that started last summer. This is the future of a budding space program that wants to undertake more ambitious projects in the future, and of a country that wants to become a new hub of technological and scientific innovation for Asia. Whether or not the Hope Mission is successful on Tuesday, its impact is already being felt.
The Emirates Mars mission is part of a larger investigation that the planets have been pursuing for decades now, hoping to uncover what transformed Mars from a humid, hot and potentially habitable world into a wretchedly dry and cold one. A big piece of this puzzle is understanding how Mars hemorrhaged most of its atmosphere, so that its lakes and rivers evaporated over time.
The mission plans to study the atmosphere with an orbiter named Hope and his three key instruments. A camera will take photos of the planet using a multitude of filters that restrict different wavelengths, helping scientists learn more about the water and ice content of the atmosphere or the nature of dust storms closer to the ground. An infrared spectrometer should be able to measure different elements in the lower atmosphere, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide. And an ultraviolet spectrometer will monitor the top of the atmosphere, tracking how it still disappears into space.
Hope will orbit Mars at a higher altitude than any previous mission to Mars, allowing scientists to see half the planet no matter where the orbiter is located. Most of Mars’ other orbiters move around the poles, so they are forced to observe locations at the same times of the day each time they pass over it. Instead, Hope will orbit almost parallel to the equator, allowing her to look at places at many different times throughout the day and see how things might change over time as the sun rises. and go to bed. And its elliptical orbit will offer different ways of looking at the planet. At greater distances, the spacecraft has a planetary view of Mars to observe global atmospheric changes in a single day, while at closer distances, it can observe specific regions to see how the atmosphere in those places changes minute by minute, hour by hour.
“The riskiest phase”
Hope is expected to meet Mars on Tuesday after a 27-minute propellant burn slowed the spacecraft to nearly 3,600 kilometers per hour, allowing it to fall safely into Martian orbit. This propellant burn is expected to occur at approximately 7:32 p.m. UAE time (10:32 a.m. EDT). The 11-minute delay in communication caused by the distance between the two planets, however, means the burn is indeed an automated process – ground crews won’t really be able to control what’s going on. They will especially have to hope for the best because they will receive intermittent updates.