The first of three internationalgets underway Tuesday when a Japanese H-2A rocket boosts a United Arab Emirates spacecraft known as “Hope” into space for a seven-month voyage to the red planet. It will be the first interplanetary mission ever attempted by an Arab nation.
A little more than a week later, China plans to launch its Tianwen 1 mission, sending its first orbiter and a surface rover to Mars while NASA presses ahead with launch of the agency’s $2.4 billionequipped with a small drone-like helicopter, on July 30. All three will reach their target in 2020.
The three missions are taking advantage of a planetary launch window that only comes around once every 26 months when Earth and Mars are in favorable positions in their orbits around the sun. This year’s launch window closes in mid August, and any spacecraft delayed past then will face two years of expensive storage.
The European Space Agency had planned to join Emirates, the United States and China, sending a powerful rover to Mars during the current window. But ESA recently was forced to stand down until the next window, primarily because of problems with the parachutes needed to help lower the rover to the martian surface.
And so, the UAE will lead the way this year with the Emirates Mars Mission, and if all goes well with Tuesday’s launch, Hope will brake into orbit around Mars next February to kick off a complex mission to shed new light on the physics and chemistry of the martian atmosphere.
But, officials say, science is just one objective of the $200 million mission. It also serves as the centerpiece of an Emirates initiative that began in 2014 to motivate the youth of the Middle East to pursue careers in science and engineering as UAE makes a planned transition from an oil-based to a “knowledge-based” economy.
“We live in a place of turmoil, a place that is made up of 100 hundred million youth under the age of 35 that want to find opportunities to work,” deputy project manager Sarah Al Amiri, UAE minister of advanced sciences and president of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told CBS News.
“And their talents at the time when we announced (Hope) were being used in the wrong groups, they were being used for terrorism and other forms of extremism by different groups in the region. And this mission was meant to provide a different way of working and a different way of forming opportunities for the region.”
And that, she said, is why the spacecraft was named Al Amal, or “Hope.”
Mounted atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-2A rocket, the Hope spacecraft was scheduled for launch from Japan’s picturesque Tanegashima Space Center at 4:51 p.m. EDT Tuesday (5:51 a.m. Wednesday local time). The UAE space agency will provide a live webcast.
The flight plan called for Hope’s release from the booster’s upper stage about an hour after launch, followed a few moments later by deployment of its two solar arrays and an initial downlink of telemetry. The first in a series of trajectory correction maneuvers, or TCMs, is planned in about one month.
Throughout the arcing 300-million-mile voyage to Mars, communications will be routed through NASA’s Deep Space Network to the Emirates control center in Dubai.
Assuming no problems develop, Hope will carry out a half-hour-long rocket firing next February, burning half its propellant to slow down enough to slip into an elliptical orbit with a high point of about 26,700 miles and a low point of around 12,400 miles.
The mission represents an ambitious bid to join the handful of nations that have attempted interplanetary exploration. The spacecraft was built in the United States by Emirates engineers working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with participation by Arizona State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Despite the expertise that went into the project, there are no guarantees.
“The Emirates fully understand the risks associated with this mission,” said Omran Sharaf, the Hope project manager. “Let’s be very honest, 50 percent of the missions that have been to Mars have failed. So it’s a big challenge. But it’s not about reaching there.
“For the Emirates, it’s more about the journey, it’s more about the impact,” he said. “Is failure an option? Yes, it is an option. But as long as we learn and we move forward, it’s just a setback. It’s not a failure for us, it’s a setback.”
Equipped with three science instruments — a powerful camera and two sophisticated spectrometers — Hope is designed to operate for at least one martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years.
The mission has three science objectives: to study weather systems in the lower atmosphere, day and night through all martian seasons; to study how oxygen and hydrogen escape into space from the upper atmosphere; and to learn how processes in the lower atmosphere contribute to that escape.
The overall goal is to collect data that will complement other Mars missions, helping scientists figure out how Mars changed from a warm, wet world with an atmosphere thick enough to permit liquid water on the surface, to a dry, frigid world with an atmospheric pressure less than 1 percent of Earth’s.
But the science is just part of the Emirates message to the Middle East.
“The objective was basically to use this mission to cause a disruptive change in the mindset of the youth, to create a research and development culture to support the creation of an innovative and creative and a competitive knowledge-based economy,” said Sharaf.
“So it’s about the future of our economy. It’s about the post-oil economy. (Emirates) wanted to inspire the young generation to go into STEM and use this mission as a catalyst to cause disruptive change and shifts in multiple sectors.
“So that’s why they went with the Mars shot and wanted to create an ecosystem that basically supports the creation of an advanced science or technology sector.”