Video Credit: Gulf News

An epochal event in UAE’s history

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

February 9, 2021. 7.42pm. All eyes and ears in the UAE will be glued on Mars. Around 9.9 million people in the country will hold their collective breath and say a prayer. For, the next 27 minutes will decide the fate of the Emirates Mars Mission.

Hope Probe arrives in Mars on Tuesday for the most crucial part of the mission — the Mars Orbital Insertion. It simply means the probe will slip into Mar’s gravity so that it can orbit the Red Planet. That would make the UAE the fifth country to reach the Martian orbit, after successful missions by the US, Russia, China, the EU, and India.

The success of the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission will be a momentous occasion for the UAE and its fledgling space programme. The Hope Probe, built by Emirati engineers, was launched from Tanegashima, Japan, on July 20, 2020.

The probe reaches Mars in the year the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary. The space mission’s challenge and ambition show that no frontier is too far for a young nation like the UAE. The Mars mission is indeed the beginning of more exciting times.

How Hope Probe will enter the Mars orbit

Angel Tesorero, Senior Reporter

The Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) is the most critical and challenging part of the mission, where precision is the key. If Hope Probe goes too fast or too slow, it will either crash on Mars or widely miss its orbit and get lost in deep space.

Suhail Butti Al Dhafri, Deputy Project Manager, said Hope Probe would deploy its six Delta V thrusters (In general physics, Delta V is the change in velocity) to rapidly reduce the speed of the spacecraft from 121,000 km/h to 18,000 km/h before entering Mars’ orbit. The MOI manoeuvre involves a 27-minute deceleration. “If one pair malfunctions, two pairs will fire up and increase burning fuel to achieve the required deceleration,” he added.

A programmed manoeuvre

Hope Probe will do an autonomous orbit insertion. The spacecraft will operate on auto mode, using star trackers to help its position.

Gulf News

All commands to Hope Probe have been pre-programmed. There is no live command that ground crew at the command centre in The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) can send to the probe as there is a 22-minute delay in communicating with the spacecraft. It requires 11 minutes to send and another 11 minutes to receive radio signals, hence the need for autonomous manoeuvres.

The Emirates Mars Mission team will use the DSN (Deep Space Network), Nasa’s international array of giant radio antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, plus a few others that orbit Earth for communications. Hope Probe will also be monitored through three antennas spread across Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, California, USA.

What accounts for the time difference and delay?

Since the vast distance between Mars and Earth causes communication delays, MOI will commence at 7.30pm (UAE time) on February 9, but the signal confirming the start of the manoeuvre will reach Earth only 11 minutes later, at 7:42pm. During the MOI operation, Hope’s signals will be routed through the Madrid antenna.

The MOI burn (firing of thrusters) will commence when the spacecraft is 2,363 km from the planetary surface. Hope will reach 1,062 km from Mars (the periapsis or nearest point of its planned capture orbit) before the burn ends at 1,441 km distance from the planet.

Some five minutes following the MOI burn, the Hope probe flies into the dark side of Mars. This period is called ‘occultation’ — this occurs when an object or spacecraft is hidden by another object (or planet). Radio signals will be lost for some 15 minutes until the probe can be contacted again.

What's the difference between capture orbit and science orbit?

Hope’s capture orbit takes the spacecraft from a distance of 1,000km (periapsis, or nearest point) to 49,380km (apoapsis, or farthest point) from Mars’ planetary surface. During this phase, Hope’s instruments will be tested for two months before it transitions to its science orbit. Three Transition to Science (TTS) manoeuvres are planned to move the probe from its capture orbit to the science orbit. The accuracy/success of MOI will decide the number of manoeuvres. The transition to science orbit will be completed by April 2021.

The elliptical science orbit of Hope Probe is between 20,000 – 43,000km around Mars, with an inclination of 25 degrees. In this orbit, the spacecraft can complete one orbit of the Red Planet every 55 hours and will capture a full planetary sample every nine days. Hope Probe’s success will make the UAE only the fifth country or entity to reach Mars and the third country to achieve it in the first attempt.

Emirati engineers are cautious but very confident

Angel Tesorero, Senior Reporter

The young Emirati engineers, programmers and data analysts at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre are confident of a successful Mars Orbit Insertion. The anxiety and excitement were evident at the MBRSC command centre in Dubai when Gulf News visited last week, but the Emirati engineers, scientists and analysts exuded a quiet confidence.

Ali Juma Al Suwaidi, FlatSat engineer, said: “It is actually hard to measure the exact level of confidence in the MOI as our project director (Omran Sharaf) had said, around 50 per cent of Mars missions have failed — some have failed at launch while others during the cruise and at arrival. But we are confident as we have been running thousands of tests and simulations and we have been closely monitoring the spacecraft cruising in deep space for almost seven months now.”

Al Suwaidi is in-charge of the FlatSat, a large motherboard at MBRSC, where modules similar to a real satellite are installed. It was used to test the instruments, telemetry database and properties of Hope Probe. “Throughout the seven-month cruise in deep space, we have also simulated the capabilities of Hope Probe prior to its Mars approach. We need the right timing and speed to avoid crashing into Mars or be lost in space,” he said.

Gulf News

‘Success is within our grasp’

Omar Abdelrahman Hussain, Lead mission design and Navigation engineer, said: The simulations for Hope Probe journey were done at least a million times, and we are still iterating the same design we had five years ago. It has been a long process and a very tedious process, but the design is very robust. Although the failure rate is 50 per cent, I believe success is within our grasp.”

He said: “Several missions have failed and we took lessons from them to innovate and mitigate any failures for our mission. We have done our Monte Carlo Simulation, a highly precise computer-based quantitative risk analyses. We also have safe margins as there will be an 11-minute communication delay with Hope Probe. There is no do-over. We are very excited; we did rehearsals to get them right. We are confident, and we just need to trust our design.”

NAT MARS-1612362114897

What will Hope Probe do in Mars?

Angel Tesorero, Senior Reporter

Two more Mars missions are expected to reach the Red Planet this month. Hope Probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission, will be the first to reach Mars on February 9, followed by China’s Tianwen-1 dual orbiter-rover on February 10, while Perseverance rover from Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) will attempt a landing on February 18. All three missions were launched in July, and the objectives of each mission are different.

Why study the Red Planet?

Apart from Earth, Mars is the most explored planet in our solar system. Several missions have been sent to Mars, and humans have been looking for answers to these fundamental questions: Did Mars once have life on it? What is the climate history of Mars? How did Mars evolve from its original state? Should Mars be the next destination for humans?

By studying the connection between current Martian weather and the ancient climate of the Red Planet, scientists will have deeper insights into the past and future of the Earth as well as the potential for human settlement on Mars and other planetary objects. Scientists will understand the weather and learn how Mars lost some of its atmosphere over billions of years of its planetary history. Substantial geophysical evidence suggests that Mars was once a much warmer and more humid world, with a lot of liquid water on its surface that could have been optimal for some form of life to evolve.

Gulf News

Portrait of Martian atmosphere

With its three scientific instruments, Hope Probe will map a complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere and evaluate its seasonal and daily changes. It will collect more than one terabyte (1,000GB) of new data, which will be shared with more than 200 academic and scientific institutions worldwide for free.

There are several spacecraft orbiting Mars, but they all follow paths around the equator and only see a particular area of the planet each day. Hope Probe will circle the equator, allowing it to get a complete picture of the planet every nine days — including every spot on the surface every day.

The scientific instruments will allow Hope to observe Mars’ atmosphere in wavelengths from the infrared into the far-ultraviolet. “This will provide a complete view of the Mars atmosphere and will allow scientists to study the interaction of different layers of the atmosphere and how these change at different times of a day and year. This will help us answer the long-standing question of how gas escapes from the Martian atmosphere and floats away into space,” Hessa Rashid Al Matroushi, Hope Probe Deputy Project Manager — Science, said.

NAT MARS 1-1612362116965

Comparing weather in Mars with Earth

Any discussion on considering Mars for human settlement requires a thorough exploration of the Red Planet. It will also help better understand the Earth’s weather.

Maryam Yousuf, Hope Probe Science data analyst, told Gulf News: “Our goal is to study the diurnal (daily) data and investigate the atmosphere of Mars, which has never been done. Studying Mars atmosphere will help us understand the atmosphere of other planets and provide a more comprehensive understanding of Earth’s weather. Having day-to-night coverage of Mars atmosphere will allow us to know what happened to Mars’ ancient wet environment, which has now become dry. We will also observe Mars weather phenomena, including its massive dust storms and compare these with dust storms here on Earth.”

Inspiring Arab youth

For the Emirati engineers, scientists and analysts on the Emirates Mars Mission, reaching Mars is about inspiring youth. Omran Sharaf, Project Director, said the space project is not just about reaching Mars — there’s much more to it. Hope Probe’s success will create a massive change and a positive impact at home that will inspire the Emiratis and the Arab youth.

Sharaf said Hope Probe would not only make history as the first Arab interplanetary mission to reach Mars, but the spacecraft will also be a showcase of the growing UAE space programme and Emirati design and engineering. He said the system, design and programme for Hope Probe’s deep-space operation are all Emirati-made, “in line with the directive from the UAE leadership to build and not to buy.”

Global cooperation on space

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chair of the UAE Space Agency said in previous interviews that Hope Probe’s mission has spurred a burgeoning scientific awakening in the UAE. It has also demonstrated the country’s commitment to global cooperation on space exploration. She said: “The UAE Mars mission opens new scientific horizons and turns the UAE into a knowledge-exporting country instead of an importer of knowledge, sharing with the world for the first time, unprecedented data that will be captured by Hope Probe.”

Mars in numbers
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

EXPERT VIEW: Why Hope mission is different

Angel Tesorero, Senior Reporter

Dr Nidhal Guessom, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, said: “Hope Probe is an orbiter that will study Mars from high above its surface to give it a large field of view and the ability to observe and measure conditions everywhere on the ground and in the atmosphere, hour by hour, and day by day, throughout the Martian year (equivalent to almost two Earth years). This has not been done before.

Hope carries a high-resolution digital colour camera, complemented by spectroscopes in infrared and ultraviolet. All this will give us a complete picture of the evolution (in time and space) of the surface conditions (e.g., dust storms) and the atmospheric processes (interaction of the layers of the atmosphere and escape of various chemical elements). After a Martian year (two Earth years) of measurements, Hope will have provided great additions to our scientific knowledge of the Red Planet, Dr Guessom told Gulf News.

Dr Nidhal Guessom
Dr Nidhal Guessom, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah Image Credit: Supplied

How can we ensure success?

“There are two key factors that will determine the success of this mission: a) successful orbital insertion around Mars; b) perfect operation of the instruments (engines, camera, spectroscopes, antennas, solar panels, etc.) during the orbital manoeuvre and later during the scientific study/observations period. The technical team in charge of operating the probe has trained tirelessly and rehearsed all actions and operations, and we are all confident that everything will work well. Still, contingency plans have been made in case one instrument or another does not function properly.

What should the UAE do next?

The UAE has already announced two important additional space projects: the second phase of the astronaut programme (to send Emirati astronauts to the International Space Station to conduct various experiments) and the Lunar Rover to be send to the moon in 2024. With Hope, this constitutes a diverse and ambitious space programme.

Another avenue to consider is the construction of a space rocket launch facility. The UAE is geographically very well positioned for such launches (good latitude, sea and ocean to the east, etc.), and could become a hub for launches.

Milestones in UAE space programme

All the close encounters with Mars

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

Dozens of spacecraft have been sent to study Mars over the past six decades. Early missions were flyby, with spacecraft taking pictures as they zoomed past. Later, probes entered the orbit of Mars and recently landers and rovers have touched down on the surface.

In the early days, launch and spacecraft failures plagued the missions. Of the many spacecraft to be launched, more than 60 per cent landing attempts have failed as the thin Martian atmosphere makes descent tricky. So far, four space agencies — Nasa, Russia’s Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) — have put spacecraft in the Martian orbit. The US has made eight successful landings and is the only country to operate a craft on the planet’s surface.

Nasa’s Mariner 4 spacecraft swung by Mars in July 1965 and captured the planet’s first close-up images. In 1971, after a series of launch failures, the Soviet space programme sent its first spacecraft into Martian orbit which returned eight months of observations about the planet’s topography, atmosphere and weather. It also sent the first lander on Mars, which returned data for about 20 seconds.

20210207 Mars Missions - Updated
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata

Over the following decades, orbiters sent back detailed data about the planet’s atmosphere and surface, helping dispel the notion that Martian canals were built by an alien civilisation. They also showed the largest volcanoes in the solar system, one of the largest canyons to be discovered and dust storms that sweep over its plains.

Nasa’s Viking 1 and 2, the first spacecraft to successfully operate on Mars in 1976, sent photos until 1982. Biological experiments were also conducted on the Martian soil to find out signs of life in space, with scientists disagreeing on interpreting the data.

In 1996, Nasa’s Mars Pathfinder mission put the first free-moving rover— called Sojourner — on the planet. Later, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity explored the planet and sent more than 100,000 images.

India’s space odyssey to Mars succeeded on its first attempt at a staggeringly cheap budget ($73 million), compared to Western standards. Launched on November 5, 2013, the Mangalyaan mission was initially meant to last six months but has completed seven years and is still functioning.

Two Nasa spacecraft are active on the Martian surface: InSight is probing the planet’s interior and has revealed that ‘marsquakes’ rattle its surface. The Curiosity rover, launched in 2012, is studying the rocks and sediments in Gale Crater’s lake bed.