With a countdown of just two days to go until the UAE’s first-ever interplanetary mission arrives at Mars, the Hope Probe is now approaching the most critical stage of its historic, seven-month, 493 million kilometre journey through space.
For everyone involved, from the scientists to the operations team to the millions of fascinated stargazers across the Arab world, the evening of 9 February will be nail-bitingly tense as the probe performs a 27-minute deceleration ‘burn’ some 2,363km from the surface of the Red Planet.
The spacecraft, which launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Island on 20 July 2020 after several days of bad weather, is set to capture into Mars orbit on Tuesday evening at 7.42pm, UAE time.
However, the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI), as the complex manoeuvre is known, is a high-stake, high-risk operation with no guarantee that the six years of continuous work on the probe will end in success.
Hope Probe will have to slowdown sufficiently to be captured into Mars Orbit, explained Omran Sharaf, project director of the Emirates Mars Mission, at a press briefing at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
As it nears Mars’ orbit, the spacecraft will fire its six Delta V thrusters to rapidly reduce its speed from 121,000 km an hour to 18,000 km/h. Nearly half of the Hydrazine fuel on board the probe will be consumed during the burn.
The thrusters are paired, so if one flares out, a second burner goes too. If Hope loses a thruster pair, it can still complete MOI with the burn duration increased to compensate. A second pair failing would terminate the mission.
"Precision is fundamental to success to avoid, God forbid, Hope Probe crashing on Mars or missing its orbit and getting lost in deep space," said Sharaf.
"The design, system and software that will be used for the MOI are all Emirati-made. This is in line with the directive from the UAE leadership to build and not to buy," he added.
While multiple tests have been carried out to perfect the manoeuvre, and the team is confident that everything will be alright on the night, space exploration is an inherently dangerous business, and Sharaf says he is keenly aware that 50 per cent of all missions to Mars have failed.
Despite the years of testing, the deceleration burn will be the first time the platform has been tested in the harsh environment of deep space. For 15 particularly nerve-wracking minutes, radio signals will be lost as the Hope Probe flies into the dark side of Mars.
On February 9, 2021, The chances of hope probe entering into a Mars orbit successfully is only a 50/50 shot. Which 50 will it be? Join us and #HopeForHope 🤲🏻🚀🔴@HopeMarsMission pic.twitter.com/BSxuLVoF8Y— وكالة الإمارات للفضاء (@uaespaceagency) February 5, 2021
Provided the Hope Probe is captured by Mars’ gravity, and does not slingshot around the Red Planet and drift, lost, into outer space, the spacecraft will provide the first-ever complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, monitoring weather changes throughout the day during all seasons, which has not been done by any previous mission.
There have been a lot of missions that have studied Mars in a polar orbit, explained Noora Saeed al-Mheiri, science data analyst – lower atmosphere, at a press briefing with the scientific team on Saturday. “These missions have provided us with knowledge when it comes to latitudinal observations, at specific timescales.
“What is unique about the Emirates Mars missions is having a near-equatorial orbit,” she said. “That means the spacecraft is closest to Mars at 20,000km, and at its furthest at 43,000km. With this unique orbit, the spacecraft will take 55 hours to complete one orbit around Mars and throughout a 10 day-period we will be able to observe the entire planet at different timescales.”
Precision is fundamental to success to avoid Hope Probe crashing on Mars or missing its orbit and getting lost in deep space
Omran Sharaf, Emirates Mars Mission
The mission will provide deeper insights on the climatic dynamics of the Red Planet through observing the weather phenomena on Mars, such as the massive dust storms that engulf the Red Planet, as compared to the short, localised dust storms on Earth.
The science will focus on better understanding the link between weather changes in Mars’ lower atmosphere, with the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from the upper layers of the atmosphere. The probe, for the first time, will study the link between weather change and atmospheric loss, a process that may have caused the Red Planet’s surface corrosion and the loss of its upper atmosphere.
Exploring connections between today’s Martian weather and the ancient climate of the Red Planet will give deeper insights into the past and future of Earth and the potential of life on Mars and other distant planets.
First of its kind data
Hessa Rashid al-Matroushi, deputy project manager – science, was quick to point out that the data gleaned will be truly unique. “The scientific data we will get will be the first of its kind and will advance humanity's knowledge when it comes to Mars science,” she said.
There are three scientific objectives, she explained. “The first is characterising the lower atmosphere of Mars. The second is about relating the conditions of the lower atmosphere of Mars to those in the upper atmosphere, specially looking into the escape of hydrogen and oxygen. And the third objective is about charactering the atmosphere of Mars and looking specifically into the changes in hydrogen and oxygen.
“In summary, the science team will focus their analysis on taking the data from the mission and then merging them to create a snapshot of the Martian atmosphere, to see how it changes in a daily manner, and following that a seasonal manner. And then of course we will take the data and compare it to other models that we have of the Martian atmosphere and even with other spacecraft data that are currently on Mars.
“Another set of analysis that we will be able to do is taking the data from the lower atmosphere of Mars and linking it to the upper atmosphere so that we can gain information about the interconnection between the layers of the Martian atmosphere.”
Dozens of landmarks across the UAE and Arab world are turning red in celebration of the UAE’s Hope probe. Credit: WAM
Furthering human knowledge
The probe will gather and send back 1,000GB of new Mars data to the Science Data Centre in the UAE via different ground stations spread around the world. The data will be catalogued and analysed by the Emirates Mars Mission science team, and shared for free with the international Mars science community as a service to human knowledge.
The climactic dynamics of the Red Planet will be studied for a full Martian year – equivalent to 687 earth days – with the first datasets released to the scientific community at the end of the third quarter of 2021.
“Inshallah, by Tuesday we will be entering the Mars orbit and immediately we will be in the capture orbit, which will last for eight weeks,” said Omran Ahmed al-Hammadi, Science Data Centre lead. “During the capture orbit, we will perform instrumentation tests to make sure the instruments are performing well after the MOI, as well as calibrating the instruments. Once we finish that, we transit to the science orbit.”
Raw data collected by the on-board instruments will be sent to the Mission Operations Centre, and then onto the Science Data Centre for processing and generating into higher-level scientific products for the science team. “This will take around 30 minutes from receiving the raw data from the science centre all the way to generating the high-level scientific products, and providing these products to the science team within the mission,” said Al-Hammadi.
“For the science community, we are going to release the first dataset four months after entering the science orbit,” he continues. “The first batch will be released by September/October. And then after that, we will release a new dataset to the scientific community every three months.”
He explained that a web portal has been built to enable the science community to access the scientific products that the mission generates. This portal will be up and running not only during the mission's lifetime, but also beyond its active phase.
The aim is to “make sure the products are available for the next generation so they can perform their scientific analysis on the data that we collect using the Emirates Mars mission”, said Al-Hammadi.
Indeed, influencing the next generation of scientists in the UAE is one of the key tenets of the Mars orbiter.
“The programmatic objective of the Emirates Mars mission is focused on developing the science and technology sectors of the UAE, as well as developing the national capabilities and increasing the UAE’s contribution to the international science community’s efforts,” said Al-Mheiri.
“Based on these objectives, the teams have developed outreach programmes to educate and give a platform for students, researchers and the general public to have not only a glimpse but also a hand-on experience of space science. The idea also is to stimulate an interest in the young generation to pursue majors in the science fields.”
The Hope Probe’s Mars Orbit Insertion, the most critical phase of the mission, will last an uninterrupted 27 minutes. Witness the dream of a nation, enter the dark half hour on the 9th of February 2021.#ArabsToMars #HopeProbe pic.twitter.com/EN7RBcUA8E— Hope Mars Mission (@HopeMarsMission) February 5, 2021
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