UAE Mars mission to ship to launch site

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WASHINGTON — A Mars orbiter developed by the United Arab Emirates will ship to its launch site in Japan this week, its launch preparations affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Emirates Mars Mission, an orbiter also known as Hope, is scheduled to launch on an H-2A rocket from Japan during a three-week launch window that opens July 14. The spacecraft will go into orbit around Mars in early 2021 to study the Martian atmosphere.

Preparation for the launch had been going well, Omran Sharaf, project director for the mission, said in an April 17 presentation at an online meeting of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG). The spacecraft completed environmental testing in the United States last December and was then transported to Dubai for a final set of tests.

Original plans called for completing those tests in May, then shipping the spacecraft to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan for final launch preparations. The pandemic, though, led mission management to move up the ship date to April 20.

“The decision was made early on that we need to ship the spacecraft as soon as possible to the launch site given the restrictions that came out with regard to traveling,” he said, such as requirements for international travelers to self-quarantine. “We had to start operating under the worst-case scenario.”

Those preparations included sending an advance team of engineers to Japan who will be out of quarantine when the spacecraft arrives and can immediately start working on the spacecraft. Those who travel with the spacecraft to Japan, though, will go into quarantine for two weeks before they can participate in launch preparations.

“This added another level of complexity” to a mission that was already challenging, he said. The mission is the first to Mars by the UAE, and a cornerstone of the country’s growing space ambitions.

Sharaf said the governments of both the UAE and Japan were supportive of plans to ship the spacecraft despite lockdowns imposed in response to the pandemic. “We got all the necessary approvals, and now the only thing that’s left is to ship the spacecraft,” he said.

Moving up the ship date, he said, means that some spacecraft tests won’t be performed. “We had to focus only on the critical testing and remove the additional testing,” he said. “It would have been good to have some of these tests, but we had to focus on completing the critical ones.”

Hope is one of three Mars missions expected to launch this summer. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will launch July 17 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral, with NASA taking special measures to keep the mission on schedule amid the pandemic. Huoxing-1, a Chinese Mars mission with an orbiter, lander and rover, is also set to launch in July on a Long March 5, although the Chinese government has provided few recent updates about the mission’s status.

A fourth mission was originally scheduled to launch this summer as well. However, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos announced March 12 they were delaying the ExoMars rover mission to 2022 because there was not enough time to qualify the spacecraft’s avionics and parachutes.

Even without those technical problems, the pandemic would have likely delayed the mission, said Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist, during a separate presentation at the MEPAG meeting.

“Had we been in a position in mid-March to still target a 2020 launch, by now it would have been impossible,” he said. “Our spacecraft is built in several places in Europe and Russia, so whenever we have to do tests we need to have people from many countries to converge at one location to take part in the tests. This has been heavily disrupted over the last month.”

The mission is now working on various issues to support a 2022 launch, such as reinforcing hinges on the spacecraft’s solar panels. The project team is also studying trajectories for the 2022 launch that will allow the spacecraft to land in the same region of Mars, Oxia Planum, early enough in the day there so that its solar panels can charge up its batteries before nightfall.

ExoMars still has parachute testing to complete as well. Vago said tests of the parachute system, which were to take place in March in Oregon, have been delayed by the pandemic. Moreover, winds at that test site shift in May, which would further postpone the tests until at least the end of September. “This is a bit of a bummer,” he said.