United Arab Emirates looks to make history today with its Mars mission launch

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is set to make history by becoming the first Arab nation to launch a spacecraft to Mars. The Emirates Mars Mission, also known as the Hope Mars Mission, was delayed twice due to thunderstorms, clouds, and unstable weather conditions at the launch site in Tanegashima Island, Japan, but the weather looks good for the newly scheduled launch time of Sunday July 19 at 5:59 p.m. ET.

The Hope mission should enter orbit around Mars in February 2021. It will collect data on the Martian atmosphere, including looking at the relationship between the upper and lower layers of the atmosphere and observing how it changes between seasons.

The Hope spacecraft weighs 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) including fuel, and is less than 3 meters (about 10 feet) long, making it around the size of a small SUV. It is equipped with three solar panel wings to provide up to 477 watts of power for charging its batteries.

Emirates Mars Mission
Engineers of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre work on the Hope spacecraft. UAE Space Agency

Reaching Mars is a major challenge for any agency. “It’s a very small target” to get into Mars orbit, Pete Withnell, program manager at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and scientist on the Hope mission, explained to reporters at a press conference. “It’s equivalent to an archer hitting a 21-millimeter target 1 kilometer away. So this is not for the faint of heart.”

When asked if he was worried about the outcome of the mission, considering India and Israel‘s recent failed attempts at moon landings, Omran Sharaf, project lead for the Hope mission, said that even if the craft failed to reach Mars, the mission would still have been worth pursuing. “It’s a big challenge. It’s risky. But it’s not about reaching there. For the Emirates, it’s more about the journey and the impact. Reaching there is one of the goals. But that doesn’t mean the mission has failed if we don’t manage to get there,” he said.

How to watch the launch

With the rocket that will carry the Hope mission already in place on the launch pad at Tanegashima Island, the situation looks promising for a successful launch on Sunday. According to local newspaper The National, a weather assessment found the conditions on Sunday suitable for a launch, and the team was given the go-ahead to begin the 30-minute process of setting the rocket in place on the pad.

You can watch the launch event live on the UAE Space Agency’s website, where there will be streams with commentary in English or Arabic. There will be a video-only version without commentary as well. Or you can watch in English using the video at the top of this page.

What Hope aims to discover

The aim of Hope is to gather data on the Martian atmosphere, looking at both the upper and lower atmospheres and how the two interact and change over the seasons. Other missions have looked at this topic, although Hope will be unusual in that it will gather a more broad view of the atmosphere across the planet and through time.

“This mission is complementary to other missions,” said Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences. “Prior [Mars] missions, their orbits are mostly locked at a local time, so they capture an understanding of the lower atmosphere of Mars at a particular time of the mission. And other missions are also looking at atmospheric escape.

This artist concept shows NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

“What this mission does, it provides us with a full understanding of the Martian atmosphere during the day, so it covers all regions of Mars at all local times. And that’s a comprehensive understanding that fills in the gaps of changes through time, through different seasons throughout an entire year.”

The mission will simultaneously investigate atmospheric loss, the process through which gases in the atmosphere are lost into outer space. It will look at the movement of hydrogen and oxygen into space, allowing the correlation of this atmospheric loss with data on weather activity in the lower atmosphere. This will fill in gaps in knowledge about the Martian atmosphere, Al Amiri said, complementing other research done by projects such as NASA’s MAVEN.

What happens on launch day

The Hope spacecraft will be launched from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, on a Mitsubishi MH-IIA rocket.

When it takes off from Earth, the launch vehicle will start off pointing away from Mars. This is due to planetary protection requirements, which state that unintended hardware should not be sent to another planet as it could potentially contaminate the area.

The issue is that both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle will continue on the same heading in the microgravity environment of space. To get the spacecraft but not the launch vehicle to Mars, the launch points away from the planet. After separation of the two, the spacecraft uses its thrusters to perform adjustments until it is pointing in the right direction, toward Mars.

Artist's impression of the Hope spacecraft in orbit around Mars
Artist’s impression of the Hope spacecraft in orbit around Mars. Government of Dubai Media Office

Around one hour after launch, the spacecraft will separate from the launcher, and around six to eight minutes after separation, the spacecraft will deploy its solar panels. These panels then need to be adjusted so they point toward the sun and can start collecting power.

Approximately 30 minutes after separation, ground control will be able to contact the spacecraft for the first time, via an antenna in Madrid, which is part of the Deep Space Network communications system. The operations center in Dubai will then be able to control the spacecraft remotely.

From this point on, the controllers will use Hope’s reaction control thrusters to stabilize the craft, and it will be on its way to the red planet.

Updated July 16: Added information about delay due to weather and new launch dates.

Updated July 17: Added information about new launch date and time.

Updated July 19: Added information about weather and the rocket being positioned on the launch pad.

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