Home LearningDid You Know? The Countdown for the Arrival of the First-ever Arab Interplanetary Mission Begins

The Countdown for the Arrival of the First-ever Arab Interplanetary Mission Begins

by Eddie Rayner

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, reviewed the final preparations of the Emirates Mars Mission team as the Hope probe is a few days away from arriving at Mars’ orbit in the first-ever Arab interplanetary mission.

In a meeting where both leaders discussed a number of strategic and national plans, Her Excellency Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chairperson of the UAE Space Agency presented the last stages of the Hope probe’s journey, leading up to its expected arrival to the Red Planet’s orbit on Tuesday, 9 February, 2021 at 7:42 pm UAE timing.

The probe’s successful arrival to Mars will make the UAE the fifth nation in the world to reach the Red Planet after the United States, Soviet Union, China, the European Space Agency and India, and the third to make the feat from the first attempt. Besides the UAE’s Hope probe, China and the US are leading exploration missions set to reach the Red Planet this month.

As the countdown for the Hope probe’s arrival begins, the UAE leaders invited the public in the UAE and across the region to celebrate the historic mission that represents the Arab world’s breakthrough in space exploration.

The meeting was attended by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Chairman of the Executive Council and President of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre; His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai; and His Highness Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, National Security Adviser.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said, “We are nine days away from making history with our arrival to Mars.” He added, “The UAE has led the Arab world to new frontiers in deep space for the first time in history. Our space mission carries a message of hope and confidence in Arab youth.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum stressed that “the probe has a 50% chance of successfully entering Mars’ orbit, but we have achieved 90% of our goals behind this historic project.”

UAE, China and the US are leading exploration missions set to arrive to Mars on February 

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said: “The Emirates Mars Mission embodies the aspirations that distinguish your country and reflects our leading status in the Arab and Islamic world. Through our journey to Mars, we will explore new horizons towards a better future.”

He added: “The UAE’s arrival to Mars was the dream of the late UAE founder His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Our investment in the human capital proved worthwhile as we see our youth capable of reaching the stars.”

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan noted, “We are proud of our people, and we look forward to making a historic contribution to serve humanity.”

The Hope probe’s complex manoeuvre on 9 February will be the most critical part of the mission, which will see the spacecraft rapidly reducing its speed from 121,000km/h to 18,000km/h to enter Mars’ orbit.

Upon arriving to Mars after travelling 493 million kilometres in a seven-month journey since its launch on 20 July 2020 from Tanegashima Island in Japan, the probe will provide the first-ever complete picture of the Martian atmosphere.

The unmanned spacecraft will explore the climactic dynamics of the Red Planet in daily and seasonal timescales for a full Martian year (687 earth days), an endeavour that has never been pursued by any previous mission.

 The Journey of the Hope Probe

Since its launch from Tanegashima Space Centre in south-western Japan, on a Mitsubishi MH-IIA rocket, the Hope probe has completed the launch and early operation stages, two of the six stages of its journey. The spacecraft is approaching the end of the third and longest stage, the cruise, which saw three successful manoeuvres to keep the probe on track towards its Mars destination. On 9 February 2021, the probe will enter its fourth, and most critical stage of its journey, the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI), which involves firing six Delta-V thrusters to rapidly reduce the speed of the spacecraft from 121,000 km/h to 18,000 km/h to enter Mars’ orbit. The following two stages, the ‘transition to the Science Orbit’ and the ‘Science Orbit’ will see the probe carrying out its exploration mission to study the atmospheric dynamics and weather of the Red Planet. 

Complex Operations

The Hope probe has overcome several complex operations throughout its seven-month journey. During the first stage of the launch, the rocket accelerated away from Earth using its solid-fuel engines. As the rocket penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere, the fairing that protects the Hope probe was discharged.

In the second phase of the launch, the first-stage rocket was disconnected, placing the probe into Earth’s orbit before the second-stage launcher pushed the probe on its trajectory towards the Red Planet at a speed in excess of 11km/s, or 39,600km/h, in an exact alignment with Mars. 

The probe then moved to the following ‘early operation’ stage where an automated sequence awakened the probe. The central computer was activated, and heaters were switched on to prevent the fuel from freezing. The Hope probe then deployed its solar panels and its sensors to locate the sun. It manoeuvred to direct the solar panels towards the sun to begin charging the onboard battery. With the power switched on, the first signals from the Hope probe were detected by the NASA Deep Space Network ground station in Madrid.

The UAE will be the 5th nation in the world to reach the Red Planet 

 Successful Manoeuvres

After receiving the first successful transmission from the probe, The Emirates Mars Mission team conducted a series of safety tests for 45 days to ensure the probe’s instruments and systems onboard are working efficiently. During this phase, the team completed a series of manoeuvres to refine the probe’s trajectory to Mars. The first two Trajectory Correction Manoeuvres were performed on 11 August 2020 and 28 August 2020.

The probe then successfully entered the ‘cruise’ stage, the third of its journey, through a series of routine operations. The ground station team maintained contact with the probe for 6-8 hours, 2-3 times a week. On 8 November 2020, the team successfully performed the third trajectory manoeuvre to direct the Hope probe towards Mars, setting the date of arrival to the Red Planet’s orbit to be 9 February 2021, at 7:42 pm UAE timing. During this phase, the team commissioned the science instruments for the first time in space, conducting regular checks to ensure their efficient operation. The instruments were calibrated using stars to ensure they are ready to operate once they arrive in Mars’ orbit. By the end of this stage, the probe then approaches the most critical part of its mission, which is the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI).

Hope Probe: A Global Picture of the Martian Atmosphere

Once it reaches Mars’ orbit, the Hope probe will provide the first-ever complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, monitoring weather changes throughout the day during all seasons, which has not been done by any previous mission.

The mission will provide deeper insights on the climatic dynamics of the Red Planet through observing the weather phenomena in Mars such as the massive famous dust storms that have been known to engulf the Red Planet, as compared to the short and localized dust storms on Earth. It will focus on better understanding the link between weather changes in Mars’ lower atmosphere, with the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from the upper layers of the atmosphere. The probe, for the first time, will study the link between weather change and atmospheric loss, a process that may have caused the Red Planet’s surface corrosion and the loss of its upper atmosphere.

Exploring connections between today’s Martian weather and the ancient climate of the Red Planet will give deeper insights into the past and future of Earth and the potential of life on Mars and other distant planets.

The probe will gather and send back 1,000 GB of new Mars data to the Science Data Centre in the UAE via different ground stations spread around the world. The data will be catalogued and analyzed by the Emirates Mars Mission science team and shared for free with the international Mars science community as a service to human knowledge.

The insights and data we gain from understanding the Martian climate will add new dimensions to human knowledge about how atmospheres work, which will help scientists and researchers evaluate distant worlds for conditions that might support life. Understanding the geographical and climate changes of Mars and the other planets will help us gain deeper insights to find solutions for key challenges facing humankind on Earth. 

The Historic Launch

After six years of relentless efforts, the defining moment of the Hope probe launch had arrived, initially scheduled on 15 July 2020.

However, unstable weather conditions at the launch site in Japan’s Tanegashima Island delayed the launch twice within the 30-day launch window scheduled between 14 July and 12 August 2020. Missing the launch window would have meant delaying the entire mission for two years. After a careful weather forecast, in collaboration with the Japanese team, the Hope probe took off on 20 July 2020 at 01:58 am UAE timing.

For the first in the history of space missions, the countdown for the historic launch was in Arabic as excitement and enthusiasm gripped millions of people in the country and across the region. The rocket carrying the probe travelled at a speed of 34,000km/h, penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere. Minutes later, the rocket was successfully disconnected, and the first signal from the Hope probe was received. The probe also received the first instructions from the Ground Station in Al Khawaneej in Dubai to deploy its solar panels and boot up its systems, marking the beginning of the probe’s journey to the Red Planet in the first-ever Arab mission to space.

Hope probe is approaching most critical phase on February 9 with a success rate of 50%

A Retreat Start

The Hope probe started as an idea in a cabinet retreat that took place in Sir Baniyas Island in Abu Dhabi at the end of 2013 to brainstorm ways to celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary. Seven months later, on 16 July 2014, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, announced that the nation would be going to Mars, issuing a decree to establish the UAE Space Agency.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, established in 2015, was tasked with the execution and supervision of all stages of the design, development, and the launch of the Hope probe. The UAE Space Agency funded and supervised necessary procedures for the implementation.

The announcement had set in motion a historic moment not just for the UAE, but the entire Arab world. It had signalled a shift in the development journey of the UAE through its entry to the global space race where the knowledge and capabilities of the UAE nationals and residents are the true wealth of the nation. The project is not only about sending a probe to Mars – it represents greater hope for the region in empowering the youth in the fields of science and technology.

From a Dream to a National Initiative

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre immediately began the project’s implementation, forming teams of young engineers, scientists and researchers to carry out the historic national mission in only six years to coincide with the UAE’s 50th-anniversary celebrations in 2021, half the duration of conventional missions to Mars that normally take 10-12 years to implement.

The probe was 100% manufactured, enabling young Emirati scientists and engineers to take on a massive challenge in the new field of space. The young team was trained and prepared to take on projects in the space sector as an opportunity to build new national capabilities and build a sustainable infrastructure for space technologies in the country, in collaboration with global partners.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre team worked with global knowledge transfer partnerships to build and test the Hope probe. On February 2020, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, witnessed the installation of the last piece of the probe. The metal piece carries the names and signatures of Their Highnesses the Supreme Council Members and Rulers of the Emirates as well as the signatures of Crown Princes. It was also decorated with a phrase that reads, “The power of hope shortens the distance between earth and sky”, in addition to the UAE flag and slogan “the impossible is possible.”

The Pandemic Challenge

After defying the challenge of building the Hope probe in record time, the team was faced by the challenge: transferring the probe from Dubai to its launch site in Japan amid the closure of ports and airports due to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through coming up alternative plans, the team had successfully transferred the probe to Tanegashima Island in Japan in an 83-hour journey over land, sea and air, following strict logistical procedures to ensure the safe arrival of the probe to its launch pad.

UAE Space Agency

The UAE Space Agency was formed in 2014 to regulate and coordinate the UAE’s growing space sector by cultivating national expertise and establishing strategic partnerships in the industry. The Agency contributes to meeting the country’s objectives to diversify the economy and build a knowledge-based future, positioning the UAE as a main contributor to the regional and global space industry. 

The Agency is assigned with developing space policies, strategies and plans, directing national space programmes and supporting research in theoretical and practical fields. In partnership with relevant authorities locally and internationally, the Agency provides world-class opportunities in the space sector and works to establish and manage investment projects as economic opportunities, in addition to organising conferences and forums to address issues related to the growing industry.