The UAE’s hope for success at Mars, and at home
Updated July 14 with new launch date.
Mars is a popular destination for science missions, but also a challenging one even for major space powers. Russia and the former Soviet Union have a long history of failed Mars missions: Russia’s last two, Mars 96 and Fobos-Grunt, couldn’t even leave Earth orbit. Japan’s only Mars mission to date, Nozomi, suffered various problems after its 1998 launch that kept it from going into orbit around Mars. China is only now attempting its first stand-alone Mars mission, Tianwen-1.
A Mars mission is all the more difficult for a country with little spaceflight experience. Yet, the United Arab Emirates is willing to try. On July 16, the Emirates Mars Mission, or Hope, is scheduled to launch on an H-2A rocket from Japan and will go into orbit around Mars next February (a launch attempt July 14 was postponed by poor weather.) Once in orbit, Hope is designed to operate for at least one Martian year, studying the planet’s weather and climate.
Project leaders said they took on a Mars mission precisely because it would be difficult. “It’s a big enough challenge, but an attainable one,” said Sarah al-Amiri, UAE minister of state for advanced sciences and deputy project manager for Hope, during a webinar about the mission in June.
The UAE started satellite programs in the mid-2000s as part of an effort to diversify the country’s economy and make it less dependent on the energy industry. That effort began with a series of Earth observation satellites, first built in cooperation with South Korea but later assembled domestically.
Doing so, she said, gave the country’s engineers experience in creating new capabilities rather than just maintaining existing systems. Working on the technologies needed for spacecraft created an increasing number of engineers who could benefit other sectors of the UAE’s economy as well.
After a series of Earth imaging satellites, a science mission was the next step in the view of the Emirati government. “They wanted us to take it to the next level,” said Omran Sharaf, project manager for Hope. “They wanted us to create a career path for scientists.”
Planning for Hope started in late 2013, although full-scale assembly of the spacecraft began only in 2018. Part of the extended planning included identifying what science goals would both be feasible for this mission and not duplicate accomplishments by past missions.
“One of the requirements very early on was to send a mission that does more than capture an image declaring that the UAE reached Mars,” al-Amiri said, including “ensuring that it is complementary to other nations and an active area of research the UAE can focus on.”
That led to Hope becoming essentially a meteorology mission. “We are the very first weather satellite for Mars,” she said. Past missions have only sporadically studied atmospheric conditions, looking at specific locations at specific times. “It’s like me telling you to study Earth at different times of the day in Alaska, London and the UAE, and then be able to form a complete picture of the weather and climate.”
The 1,350-kilogram spacecraft will carry three instruments: a camera, infrared spectrometer and ultraviolet spectrometer. Those instruments, operating in a high, elliptical orbit around Mars, will study changing atmospheric conditions globally, as well as the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere to space. The data from the mission will be made freely available shortly after the spacecraft enters its final science orbit around Mars later next year.
The mission does involve some international cooperation. The UAE worked closely with several American universities with experience in space science missions, such as the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “We all worked under one umbrella as one team,” Sharaf said.
The spacecraft went to the United States last year for environmental tests in Colorado that wrapped up last December, then returned to the UAE for final preparations. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the mission to move up shipment of the spacecraft by about three weeks, from midMay to late April. One team of engineers went first to Japan so they would be out of quarantine when the spacecraft arrived. Those who traveled with the spacecraft had to then go into quarantine before they could take part in launch preparations there.
“Nothing about this mission has been easy, from day one,” Sharaf said. “The time frame has been challenging. The budget itself has been a big challenge.”
He did not provide the budget for Hope, saying only that it will be disclosed “at a later stage.” Among recent Mars missions, the one most similar to Hope was NASA’s MAVEN orbiter mission, launched in 2013 to study how the Martian atmosphere escapes to space. MAVEN, somewhat larger than Hope, cost about $670 million to build and launch.
Project officials haven’t discussed what they might do after Hope. Unlike the United States, Europe or other nations that have carried out or planned a series of Mars missions, the UAE hasn’t announced any future Mars missions or other major space science missions.
Instead, there’s more of a focus on applying the experience from the mission to other science and technology fields in the country. “What we’re now looking at is how we deploy this model that has been constructed in planetary exploration for the UAE for the development of various sectors,” al-Amiri said, such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
Both Hope and other UAE space initiatives, like an astronaut program that sent the first Emirati to space last year, are also intended to be tools of outreach — one of the reasons why this mission is named Hope. “It’s the hope for the Emirati youth for their future, and also for Arab youth,” Sharaf said.
Asked to give the odds for success, he declined to give a specific figure, but noted about half of all Mars missions historically have failed. “We totally understand that, and that’s why the UAE chose Mars as a target, because of the challenges around it,” he said. “But the challenges we’re facing in the region are also not easy.”
This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.