Dubai: His was the voice that announced to the world that Hope Probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission, successfully entered Mars orbit on February 9. He has worked on the mission since its inception in 2014 and his calm demeanour has been a constant presence inside the mission control centre.
His name is Omran Sharaf, project director of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). He and his team are responsible for developing, launching and operating Hope Probe. He leads a team of young Emirati engineers, scientists, data analysts and programmers — all under 35 years old — and they have made history in putting a young nation like the UAE as the first Arab country and only the fifth in the world to reach the Red Planet. It was a big moment of triumph and jubilation for EMM, the UAE and the entire Arab world.
In an exclusive interview, Sharaf shared the mood of the team during the crucial Mars orbit insertion (MOI); the moment they received the first photo of Mars; what’s next for Hope Probe; how the mission has created a powerful impact on the youth; future space missions; as well as his personal journey and transformation.
Currently, Hope Probe is at its capture orbit moving at a trajectory of 1,000km at its nearest point to Mars surface and farthest point at 49,380km. During this phase, all instruments on board Hope Probe will be calibrated to ensure data that will be collected is accurate. The spacecraft will also conduct three TSMs (Transition to Science Manoeuvre) and the orbiter will be gradually transferred to its science orbit by April.
“This mission has provided me with an excellent learning experience and exposed me to different things – not just technical and administrative challenges. Going to Mars was not the only goal – it was a means to a much bigger objective and it is really difficult to put a price tag on it.”
Hope has a planned 20,000-43,000km elliptical science orbit, with an inclination to Mars of 25 degrees. In this orbit, the probe completes one orbit of the planet every 55 hours and will capture a full planetary sample every four orbits or nine Martian days.
Pride, happiness and positivity
Recalling the historic moment on February 9, Sharaf said it was a day “full of pride, happiness and positivity. Yes, it was a very busy, intense and stressful day; but personally, I was confident about the teamwork and spacecraft design.”
Worried, scared, but confident – it was definitely a mixed feeling for Sharaf and his team who have reached that point – the farthest that any Arab would go in the universe. The MOI was very critical. They only had one shot and with only 50 per cent success rate – it could go either way: failure or accomplishment.
Sharaf has worked on the project since inception in 2014 and developed all the necessary capabilities and partnerships at MBRSC, effectively transitioning the organisation from one that focused on earth observation satellites to one that develops interplanetary exploration missions.
An experienced electronics and systems engineer who trained in the US and South Korea, he was responsible for developing and implementing the Command & Data Handling Subsystem (C&DH) for DubaiSat-1. He also headed the development the C&DH subsystem and payload electronics subsystem for DubaiSat-2, along with being a systems engineer of that project. Prior to EMM, he was director of the Programmes Management Department at MBRSC, and responsible for defining new strategic programmes.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia, USA in 2005, and his Master’s in Science and Technology Policy from the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), South Korea in 2013.
The MOI commenced at 7.30pm (UAE time). Hope Probe worked autonomously as it fired its six Delta V thrusters to rapidly decrease speed from 121,000km/h to 18,000km/h. The deceleration burn took 27 minutes and by 7.57pm, the probe was safely captured by Mars orbit. At 8.08pm, the ground control station at Al Khawaneej received the first transmission from Hope Probe and Sharaf confirmed to the UAE and the world the success of the mission.
Sharaf told Gulf News: “After we arrived, the stress went away. The feeling was very difficult to describe. For the first few minutes, I was still in shock. The past seven years (from Hope Probe announcement in 2014), went really fast in front of me. It took me a while to realise our feat and it was a good feeling. Now, the load is still high but the stress level is significantly less.”
Shift to Science orbit
Members of the EMM are currently working on calibrating Hope Probe’s scientific instruments to make sure Martian atmospheric data that will be collected are accurate. At least three TSMs (Transition to Science Manoeuvres) will be conducted before Hope Probe shifts to its Science orbit.
Sharaf said Capture orbit is for commissioning, calibrating and preparing before going to Science orbit, where Hope Probe will move around Mars at a range between 20,000 to 43,000 kms. At this distance, Hope Probe will commence its mission of studying Martian atmosphere, particularly the link between its weather change and atmospheric loss, a process that may have caused the Red Planet’s surface corrosion and the loss of its upper atmosphere. Hope Probe will provide deeper insights on the climatic dynamics of the Red Planet, including its massive dust storms and compare them with Earth’s short and localised dust storms.
Stamp of success
On February 14, Hope Probe sent a composite image capturing Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, emerging into the early morning sunlight on Mars.
Hope Probe has travelled 493.5 million kms to Mars after lift off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre on July 20, 2020 at 1.58am (UAE time). The spacecraft’s mission is to explore the atmosphere of Mars globally while observing both diurnal (daily) and seasonal timescales. This has never been done by any previous Mars missions.
According to EMM, understanding the atmosphere of other planets will allow us to better understand our own planet Earth. We will know what happened to Mars’ ancient wet environment, which has now become dry. We can also observe Mars weather phenomena, including its massive dust storms, and compare these with dust storms here on Earth.
Hope Probe carries a high-resolution digital colour camera, complemented by spectroscopes in infrared and ultraviolet. All these will give us a complete picture of the evolution (in time and space) of Martian surface conditions and its atmospheric processes. After a Martian year (equivalent to two years on Earth) of scientific study, Hope Probe would have provided greater additions to our scientific knowledge of the Red Planet.
Sharaf said: “Receiving the first image was very positive. Reaching Mars was a big news and receiving the first photo taken by Hope Probe was like a stamp of completing our successful entry to Mars. Before that, we only received data, numbers and telemetries to verify we are around Mars. When we saw the photo, it was really a good feeling to see something in front of you rather than numbers and telemetries. We processed the image to show how as humans we could see Mars with our naked eyes at 25,000kms above the Red Planet.”
Benefit for humanity
The international media and scientific community have hailed the UAE’s success story – how a country with a nascent space agency went straight to Mars.
Sharaf noted: “The reason why the UAE was able to reach Mars in such a short time and with a relatively small budget was because of international collaboration. Around 450 people worked on this mission – 200 are Emiratis and 150 from our academic partners in US (University of Colorado, Boulder; Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley) and 100 sub-contractors from around the world.
“The mission proved the importance of collaboration. The direction of the UAE government since Day 1 was ‘Don’t start from scratch, begin where others ended. Work with others’. The mission was cost-effective and efficient because of collaboration. And we have learned lessons that we would like to share with other Arab nations and the world so we can take on more ambitious projects that will benefit humanity,” he underlined.
Everything went as planned. The UAE leaders have hailed Hope Probe’s historic arrival to Mars as the greatest celebration of the UAE’s Golden Jubilee. The mission has also set the tone for the country’s next 50 years with boundless dreams and bigger ambitions.
Sharaf noted: “Big part of the mission was to inspire the Emirati and Arab youth. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, made it clear to the team that the science objective was very important to the global scientific community. Equally important, however, was its impact to the youth. And we have seen a shift in the mindset of Emirati youth to embrace space exploration.”
“We have worked with different sectors. In the academia, in particular, we have seen how students have shifted majors from international relations and finance to sciences because of the Emirates Mars Mission programme. We have seen a lot of qualitative impact among the Emirati and Arab youth who have reacted very positively,” he said.
The mission to Mars was both personal and professional for Sharaf. He said: “This mission has provided me excellent learning experience and exposed me to different things – not just technical and administrative challenges. Going to Mars was not the only goal – it was a means to a much bigger objective and it was really difficult to put a price tag on it.”
“I’m very honoured and lucky to have that experience,” he noted, adding: “One thing about the UAE – it brings opportunity, regardless of age group, there is always an opportunity and I would like to see young Emiratis and Arabs to have a similar journey to venture into difficult projects that would really push them out of their comfort zone. To learn and be competitive. I’m confident similar opportunities will be there – with more and bigger projects for our Arab youth who will help in building this region.”
Reaching Mars was just 50 per cent of the mission, Sharaf said. The completion of Hope Probe space quest will be the delivery of science data (over 1,000 GB or 1 terabyte of new Mars data that will be shared for free with more than 200 academic and scientific institutions around the world). He said: “All data will be available to everyone – in an open platform – with no restrictions as our policy is about transparency and collaboration. Currently, we will focus on Hope Probe mission but the UAE has more ambitious plans for the future and at the right time, we would definitely announce future space missions.”