Today, the first interplanetary mission of the United Arab Emirates started successfully at the southern tip of Japan and sent an autosize probe for the planet Mars. The launch marks the start of the country's most ambitious space project to date, aimed at studying the weather on Mars that will develop on the planet over the course of the year.
The spacecraft named Hope launched at 6:58 a.m. (or afternoon at 5:58 p.m. ET on the east coast of the US) on a Japanese H-IIA rocket from the Japanese Tanegashima Space Center. The probe will now travel through space for the next seven months and will regularly correct its course with a series of engine burns. Sometime in February 2021, it will then try to put itself in an elongated orbit around Mars, where it will analyze the atmosphere and climate over the course of every day in Mars.
The timing of this launch was absolutely critical for the UAE
The timing of this launch was absolutely critical for the UAE. The United Arab Emirates government designed this project in 2014 to inspire Emirati teenagers and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation's foundation in December 2021. To ensure that Hope was in orbit by the anniversary, the team behind the spaceship had to start this summer during a small window when Earth and Mars were closest in orbit around the sun. This planetary orientation takes place every 26 months, so the UAE team had to start this year to meet the 2021 deadline.
Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP via Getty Images
So far, the start seems to have been a smooth one. For a few minutes after the spacecraft was launched from the missile, the engineers feared that the vehicle would not have opened one of its two solar panels. However, the UAE finally confirmed that both panels had been used. The mission team noted that they were connected to the spaceship and that Hope appeared to be in good shape. The engineers will continue to analyze data coming from the spaceship and will provide information about Hope's health in the coming hours.
But some in the UAE are already celebrating. "Years of hard work and dedication have paid off," said Yousef Al Otaiba, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States, during a live stream after the launch. “Thanks to the efforts of the mission team, the first UAE spacecraft, which was just a concept, just an idea six years ago, is now flying well into space on its way to another planet. It is a great achievement. But it is just the beginning. "
Reaching this point proved to be a particularly challenging process for the UAE, which had only experience in launching Earth observation satellites. The engineers and scientists had only six years to prepare the probe for launch this year, and their government commissioned it to build – not to buy – the spacecraft within a $ 200 million budget for development and launch .
"Years of hard work and commitment have paid off to a great extent."
"The government was very clear to us about this: they wanted us to develop a new model for the execution and execution of such missions," said Omran Sharaf, the project manager for the Emirates Mars mission, during a press conference prior to the launch. "So they didn't want anything on a big, big budget. They wanted something to be delivered quickly and quickly, and that we could share with the rest of the world how they could approach missions."
The team behind the mission decided that ultimately it didn't want to go it alone. They have worked with various academic institutions in the United States, including the University of Colorado at Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California at Berkeley, all of whom had previous experience in developing instruments or devices for space probes. The partnership enabled the UAE team to build on well-known spacecraft designs, utilize existing test infrastructure, and gain knowledge from experienced aerospace engineers.
Mission control engineers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai oversee the launch.
Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP via Getty Images
Today's launch is a big win for the UAE and this new model for spacecraft development – but there is still a long way to go before the country's Mars mission is declared a success. In about a month, the engineers will perform the first maneuver to correct the path from Hope to Mars. The vehicle burns its engines on board and lightly knocks the probe on its way through space. A number of these maneuvers are required to ensure that Hope arrives at the right place on Mars upon arrival. "It's a very small goal," said Pete Withnell, program manager for the mission at the University of Colorado Boulder, during a pre-launch press briefing. "It corresponds to an archer hitting a two millimeter target a kilometer away. So this is not for the faint of heart."
The biggest test of all will take place in February
And the biggest test of all will take place in February, when Hope has to burn his engines for 30 minutes to fit into orbit around Mars. The maneuver is intended to slow the spaceship from more than 121,000 km / h to more than 18,000 km / h. The spaceship must do this alone, without input from Earth. At this point, it will take too long for a signal to be sent to Mars in time to make corrections. Therefore, the combustion must be completely autonomous.
There is still a long way to go and the UAE is celebrating a successful start. If all goes well, the start of the UAE should be the first of three missions to Mars that start within the net month. Next up will be China, hoping to bring a Mars orbit, lander and rover to the Red Planet on July 23. NASA then launches its Perseverance rover to search for signs of past lives and dig up samples that may be returned to Earth for investigation in the next decade. All of these groups are running for the start while the planets are aligned, and time is running out to lift them all off the ground.