Launched back in July 2020, the United Arab Emirates’ first-ever interplanetary mission – Hope, is awaited to insert into the orbit of Mars on February 9, 2021. A successful Mars orbital insertion would create a glorious history for the UAE, also making the country only the fifth to reach the red planet, following the US, Russia, China and India.
The UAE’s Hope (Al Amal in Arabic) probe was launched last July during a window of time when Earth and Mars were very close that made for an optimal launch. Taking advantage of the optimal window, China’s Tianwen-1 and NASA’s Perseverance rover were also launched.
Hope probe is said to spend one Martian year, which is about two Earth years, studying the atmosphere of Mars. The probe is designed to orbit high over the planet’s equator to study the weather at the surface and the interaction of the atmospheric layers of the red planet.
“Right now, the team has prepared as well as they can possibly prepare to reach orbit around Mars,” Sarah Al Amiri, chairperson of the UAE Space Agency, said on Jan. 28. “We’re just counting down the final few days before we arrive to the Red Planet.”
More than half of the missions to Mars have failed so far. Hope will have to complete a very tricky maneuver to enter into the Martian orbit. A complex procedure of Mars orbital insertion involves a 30 minute burn that slows the probe from 100,000kph to just 18,000.
“We’re going to slow down the spacecraft from more than 100,000 kilometres per hour down to 18,000kph,” Omar Abdelrahman Hussain, mission design and navigation lead, said.
According to Hussain, there is going to be an 11-minute communication delay both ways so the mission team won’t be able to send any live commands, however, they can monitor the performance of the burn.
“We do have all of the contingencies built into the spacecraft so we don’t have to interact with it during this very critical period,” he said.
“Then, we’ll go into an occultation and that will be the first time we won’t have contact with the spacecraft for a few minutes. The success of this phase will be a big reason for the mission’s success.”
The mission experts are expecting the occultation to last about 15 minutes.
Despite the risks and challenges, the team is optimistic about the Hope mission.
“We are fortunate to have a very healthy spacecraft, and everything is looking very good at the moment,” Pete Withnell, Hope program manager at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics program, which partnered with the UAE on the mission, said.
“I’m optimistic; that would be my primary emotion right now,” Withnell said. “But I can tell you many of the team are waking up at two o’clock in the morning in a cold sweat just thinking and rethinking about aspects.”
The spacecraft consists of six tested thrusters. In case any of these thrusters fail during orbit entry, the spacecraft will automatically adjust to correct its trajectory.
Hope mission will conduct its Mars orbit insertion on February 9 beginning at about 10:30 am EST. Following the UAE’s mission, China’s Tianwen-1 is expected to slip into the orbit of Mars just a day after, on February 10. Previously, China’s Chang’e 5 mission had returned back with Moon rocks to Earth.
Similarly, Nasa’s Perseverance, which was also launched during the same month Hope and Tianwen-1 were launched, will touch down on the red planet on February 18.
Nasa’s Deep Space Network radio antenna in Madrid will first know if the orbit insertion was successfully completed.
The probe will spend around 40 hours in the capture orbit and after that, it will be transferred to the science orbit where it will spend around 2 years studying the Martian atmosphere and mapping seasonal changes.
As the UAE is underway with its ambitious mission to Mars with Hope, the country is already planning to launch its first lunar rover – Rashid, in 2024.
Image: Emirates Mars Mission