Wednesday, March 3, 2021

UAE spacecraft reaches Mars in a milestone for Arab nations

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Controllers monitor the Hope mission, which arrived at Mars today, from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hope arrived at Mars today, as the optimistically named mission from the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—the first planetary mission from an Arab nation—blazed into orbit to study the martian atmosphere and climate. If all systems check out after the stresses of orbit insertion, UAE, which founded its space agency only in 2014, will join an elite club of nations that have successfully sent missions to Mars: the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, and India.

Orbit insertion involved a 30-minute burn of the spacecraft’s thrusters to slow it from 121,000 kilometers per hour to 18,000 kilometers per hour so that it can be captured by Mars’s gravity. Over the next few months, Hope will slowly maneuver into an elliptical science orbit that can vary from 20,000 to 43,000 kilometers above the planet. Most other Mars spacecraft orbit farther down, observing narrow stripes of the surface at the same time of day. Hope’s orbit will enable a much wider, global view, and allow it to observe changes during the day and night.

The spacecraft carries three instruments: infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers and an imaging camera that will capture how dust storms start and evolve and how the atmosphere reacts to changes in space weather, such as solar storms. Orbiter data will also shed light on how hydrogen and oxygen gases migrate up from the lower atmosphere and escape into space, a process that expelled water from the planet and affected its past habitability.

Astrophysicist Dimitra Atri of New York University, Abu Dhabi, is looking forward to using Hope’s data. He says previous atmospheric probes, such as NASA’s Maven, were good but zoomed in on a small area at a time. “Hope will have a big overview. It will see things globally, over the entire planet,” he says.

For UAE, the hope is that the mission will motivate young people across the region to pursue science careers. “Even with Hope’s launch, there was wall-to-wall coverage,” Atri says. “There’s so much excitement in the region.”

China’s Tianwen-1 is due to arrive at Mars on 10 February—another martian debutante—with an orbiter, lander, and rover. NASA’s Perseverance rover will join the party on 18 February, heading straight for Jezero crater.

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