SPACE EXPLORATION

UAE joins space race as Hope probe successfully enters Mars orbit

The UAE has become the world's fifth country to reach Mars, after its Hope probe, illustrated here in a photo at Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, entered the planet's orbit on 9 February.
The UAE has become the world's fifth country to reach Mars, after its Hope probe, illustrated here in a photo at Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, entered the planet's orbit on 9 February. REUTERS - AHMED JADALLAH

The United Arab Emirates has become the first Arab nation in history to deploy an interplanetary probe after its Hope spacecraft was successfully placed into orbit around Mars.

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Launched from Earth seven months ago, Hope is the first of three missions due to arrive at the Red Planet this month – with China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter and the US’s Perseverance rover to follow.

Approaching Mars at a speed of more than 120,000km/h, Hope’s braking engines were fired for 27 minutes – a manoeuvre that used up most of the probe’s fuel – allowing it to decelerate to 18,000km/h and be captured by the planet’s gravity.

Although this nail-biting step was only given a 50 percent chance of success, the UAE became the fifth country in the world to reach Mars at 3.57pm GMT, when it slipped into orbit at a distance of 1,062km from the surface.

In celebration, visitors arriving in the UAE on Tuesday received “Martian ink” stamps in their passports reading: “You’ve arrived in the Emirates. The Emirates is arriving at Mars on 09.02.2021”.

New horizons

The success of the Hope mission comes as the UAE marks its 50th anniversary, and as leaders push soft power in an effort to diversify the economy away from oil.

“The Hope Probe is just the beginning of a series of yet-to-be achievements,” propulsion engineer Ayesha Sharafi posted on Twitter.

Hope, or “al-Amal” as it’s called in Arabic, aims to put together the first complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere and climate. The probe carries with it three scientific instruments that will be used to collect atmospheric data, measuring both daily and seasonal changes.

The head of the mission’s Science Data Centre, Omran Ahmed Al-Hammadi, says Hope will spend eight weeks running calibration tests before it starts collecting data. Scientists from around the world can expect to see the first results in September. 

“The probe will complete one orbit of the planet every 55 hours, and will capture a complete planetary sample every nine days,” al-Hammadi told journalists at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai. 

During its two years in orbit around Mars, Hope will collect some 1,000 gigabytes of data, al-Hammadi added.

Key data on the UAE's "Hope" probe and its journey to Mars.
Key data on the UAE's "Hope" probe and its journey to Mars. Cléa PÉCULIER AFP

Rival missions

The Mars exploration missions, launched in July 2020, were timed to coincide with the moment during which Earth and Mars are at their closest point in more than two years.

They aim to answer one of science's most enduring questions: was there ever life on Mars? 

While these days it may be an icy, barren desert, recent robot missions have revealed Mars actually has dried-out river channels and lake beds – leading scientists to speculate there's a good chance the fourth planet from the Sun may have once harboured life.

The Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter will seek to enter Mars’s orbit on Wednesday, while the United States – so far the only country to have successfully put spacecraft on Mars – will attempt to land its Perseverance rover in the Jezero Crater on 18 February.

While Mars missions are extremely costly, astrobiologists say the Red Planet still offers the best hope of finding evidence of alien life.

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