Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Mars, where the outside temperature is a chilly minus 60 degrees Celsius.
Do take care when alighting the craft as the gravitation pull is much less than back on Earth — the good news is that for you who weighed 100 kilograms back there, here you’ll weigh in at just 38 kilograms.
A reminder too that you’ll need to keep your oxygen supply on at all times — the natural atmosphere is about one hundred times thinner than back on Earth and is more than 95 per cent carbon dioxide with just 0.13 per cent oxygen.
A reminder too that you’ll need to adjust your watches — there are 37 minutes more in each day now and a Martian year is actually 687 days long. You’ll notice too that there are two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Phobos travels fast from west to east and does so three times in the Martian day, while Deimos travels from east to west and rises once most days, twice on some others.
The $200 million (Dh734 million) price tag certainly seems worth every penny when it comes to providing a technological focus for a nation that has, from the very first unity meeting of its founding fathers under Sheikh Zayed back in December 1971, refused to set limits on how far or how fast it could go
And if you look far away, there, just above the Martian horizon, you might just be able to make out a sliver of planet Earth and the orbiting Moon 104.7 million kilometres away — that view of the dark side of the Moon can’t ever be seen from Earth.
And from there, at 1:58am local time last Saturday, the UAE launched its Hope Probe — the first Mars mission undertaken by any nation in the Arab World and one of just a handful of countries with the technical know-how to send a satellite on this long, cold, dark and dangerous journey.
While the Hope Probe’s launch was delayed due to poor weather conditions around the Tanegashima Space Centre In Japan, all 1,350 or so kilograms of the probe about the size of a small saloon car is now hurtling through space at 121,000 kilometres per hour, taking seven months to reach the red planet.
Exploring the red planet
By early February, the Hope Probe should be in orbit over Mars, ready to unfurl its two two-metre solar panels and begin charging its batteries. Those will provide power to its camera to allow it to capture high resolution images of the surface of Mars.
An infrared spectrometer will study dust, ice clouds, water vapour and temperature in the lower atmosphere while an ultraviolet spectrometer will investigate carbon monoxide, hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere — the three systems independently providing crucial information in expanding our limited knowledge of Mars.
The planet was only viewed for the first time by a fly-by in 1974. Now, the Hope Probe’s three systems will provide a highly detailed picture of both the physical, chemical and climate conditions on the surface, beamed back to the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre by a nearly two-metre antenna perched on the topside of the orbiter — gold coloured because of the thermal blanket protecting it from the extremes of temperatures in space.
“arbae, thalaatha, athnan, wahid, sifr”
For the first time in history the iconic countdown to slip the surly bonds of Earth of “three, two, one and lift-off” instead were uttered in Arabic as “Arbae, thalaatha, athnan, wahid, sifr” — with the rocket of a H-IIA launch vehicle from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries creating enough thrust during its 534 seconds of burn time to accelerate the Hope Probe to speeds of 4.38 kilometre per second.
Dust storms are a common phenomenon in the UAE, but dust storms are a common occurrence on Mars.
Come early February, once the Hope Probe settles into orbit between 20,000 and 43,500 kilometres, then communication is established and assuming all is working as it should, the UAE will uniquely be able to supply planetary scientists with the first detailed climate reports around the clock from Mars — and provide the first detailed picture of how climate and atmosphere interact on the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun.
Right now, three separate missions are headed to Mars over the next couple of months with the UAE’s Hope Probe the first to take advantage of a once-every-26-month window when the journey time allows for a shorter seven-month voyage.
Nasa is sending up a Mars rover, Perseverence, to search for chemical traces of past life, while China plans to launch a probe and land a robotic explorer too. A Russian mission was scrubbed over technical difficulties that couldn’t be sorted out in time for the limited close-proximity window this time around.
UAE in exalted company
Certainly, the Hope Probe puts the UAE into exalted company indeed — most of the early missions from the US and USSR were dogged by failure, and only the European Space Agency, Nasa, Russia, China and India have so far managed to make it to orbit with functioning equipment: only the US and Russia have successfully landed explorers on the surface.
The UAE mission, however, represents a giant leap for a small and young nation, new to space and the extreme technical challenges it poses for scientists, technicians and a virtual army of experts marshalled across an array of research fields in making the mission a reality.
The $200 million (Dh734 million) price tag certainly seems worth every penny when it comes to providing a technological focus for a nation that has, from the very first unity meeting of its founding fathers under Sheikh Zayed back in December 1971, refused to set limits on how far or how fast it could go.
Certainly now that vision and drive then has set it well and truly on course for exploring Mars from orbit come February next year.
What a way to mark its 50th anniversary. And yes, maybe that vaulted hope of sending a UAE manned mission to Mars early on in the next century doesn’t seem too far-fetched at all.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe