The United Arab Emirates’ first-ever mission to Mars has launched, beginning a seven-month journey to the Red Planet in a historic mission.
At 5.58 P.M. Eastern Time today, Sunday, July 19, the UAE’s $200 million Hope spacecraft lifted off on board a Japanese H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center off the southern coast of mainland Japan.
About one hour after launching, the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the rocket and began its solo journey to Mars. It is scheduled to arrive in February 2021, when it will enter orbit around the planet and begin its mission.
“Years of hard work and dedication have paid off in a big way,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, said following the launch. “The UAE’s first Mars spacecraft is now flying into space, well on its way to another planet.”
Now that the spacecraft has launched, it will be months of both work and nervous waiting for the mission control team at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, with several maneuvers required along the way to Mars.
When it arrives, Hope will be placed into an orbit between 20,000 and 43,000 kilometers above the surface of Mars. It will complete an orbit once every 55 hours, inclined at an angle of 25 degrees, meaning different parts of Mars will rotate beneath the spacecraft.
Hope has three instruments on board to carry out a number of different scientific goals. It will study hydrogen and oxygen in the Marian atmosphere, and help to work out how Mars lost its atmosphere over the last few billion years.
Perhaps most interestingly, Hope will act as a Martian weather satellite, providing updates on dust storms and ice clouds on Mars, monitoring the weather at different times of the day, and tracking seasonal changes.
The science mission of the spacecraft will begin in May 2021, after its instruments have been checked out. It also has a camera on board, to take images of the surface and return them to Earth.
The mission will last two Earth years, equivalent to one Martian year. But it could last for up to four Earth years – or two Martian years – depending on how the spacecraft fares in its time at Mars.
While there are scientific goals, this Emirates Mars Mission has a broader purpose too. It is designed to show that the UAE wants to embrace science and knowledge in its economy as it moves into a new era.
“The UAE wants to support the creation of a creative, innovative, and competitive knowledge-based and post-oil economy,” Omran Sharaf, the project lead on the mission, said prior to the launch.
“To do that, an advanced and capable science and technology sector is crucial. This mission is a catalyst for change.”
The UAE has only limited experience in space before, operating just a handful of spacecraft in Earth orbit. However, it has grand ambitions. After this mission, it hopes to launch to the Moon for the first time in 2022.
And the country has even talked about sending humans to Mars in the future, with their Mars 2117 program designed to look at some of the challenges that will face future humans on Mars.
Missions to Mars have a tendency to struggle, with roughly half throughout history having failed. Only the U.S., Russia, Europe, and India have successfully orbited Mars, and only NASA has successfully landed and operated on the surface.
Hope is one of three missions to Mars launching in the coming weeks – a launch window to the Red Planet that opens every 26 months when our two planets align for the shortest traversal. This coming week it will be joined by China’s Tianwen-1 mission, also a first for the country, which includes both an orbiter and rover.
At the end of July, both of these missions will be joined by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Designed to land in an ancient Martian river delta, Perseverance will perform the most extensive search for life on Mars yet.
All three missions will arrive at Mars in February 2021. But it is Hope that is leading the armada, and following today’s successful launch, the UAE now has a major interplanetary mission under its belt.
“This is a great moment not just for the United Arab Emirates, but for all the international partners that are involved in exploring space,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said prior to the launch.
“The United Arab Emirates is a shining example of what can be done when we work together.”