At 7:42 p.m Tuesday local time, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe reached Mars’ orbit. This makes the UAE the first Arab nation to reach the red planet, and the fifth country to ever earn this distinction.
This extraordinary feat was confirmed about half an hour after the probe actually reached Mars’ orbit, as flight engineers waited in dread for the signal to reach UAE’s mission control.
Fortunately, their hard work paid off and their calculations proved right. The probe slowed down from its breakneck interplanetary cruise speed of 100,000 kilometers per hour (62,000 mph) to about 18,000 kph (11,000 mph).
It’s a very tricky braking maneuver, which used up over half of the spacecraft’s fuel, testified by the fact that over half of all Mars missions actually failed at this stage. But the Emiratis managed to pull it off on their first try. The only other country to have done so is India in 2014.
“Mars orbit insertion was the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to stresses and pressures it has never before faced,” said Omran Sharaf, the Hope mission’s project director at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre
“With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”
Now, UAE scientists are looking forward to studying Mars’ atmosphere using three main instruments designed, among other things, to record how hydrogen and oxygen leak into space.
In its ancient history, Mars once had a thick atmosphere and even supported oceans and rivers of flowing water. At some point, billions of years ago, Mars started leaking gas to the point that it is now about 1000 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.
In good company
Today’s scheduled rendezvous time was no coincidence. The mission was designed to take advantage of the rare time window during which Earth and Mars are at their closest, which only occurs once every two and a half years.
This explains why Mars’ orbit has gotten mighty crowded this month. Besides UAE, China also arrived to Mars’ orbit this week with its Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which is supposed to take on an even greater challenge: landing on the red planet. According to China’s mission control, the lander and rover carried by the orbiter will attempt to touch down on Mars in early March, in the Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere. Additionally, next week, the Americans will also arrive with another big rover, known as Perseverance.
Besides these recently added UAE and Chinese orbiters, there are six other orbiters currently studying the red planet from high up above. Three are operated by NASA (Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN), two are from Europe (Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter), and another one by India (Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan).
Six years in the making
The Hope probe is the pinnacle of the UAE’s space program, which involves thousands of people who put in six years of work and $200 million in funding.
That’s quite the sum, but the UAE is aiming for a high return on investment. Besides the prestige of joining an elite club of nations, the leading Arab nation hopes to inspire a new generation into pursuing STEM education and enhancing the nation’s competitiveness in technology. The UAE is also the first nation in the world to have a minister of artificial intelligence, which speaks volumes about its ambition to transition from a leading exporter of oil into a leading exporter of technology.