July 2020 is a crowded month for Mars missions. It feels like everyone is going to the red planet! One of which is the Emirates Mars Mission that will be making history in more ways than one. And time is of the essence. The team has a limited launch window. And if they miss it, they’ll have to wait until 2022. But when it does get there, the mission could provide us with the most comprehensive picture of the Martian atmosphere yet.
This is the first time we’re doing a deep space mission. The fuel that’s needed for such a mission, the communication delays that you will get, it makes it really complex to be able to operate and work on. In fact, the Emirates Mars Mission will be the first interplanetary one for the Arab world. And it’s quite impressive considering that the country’s national space program only started in 2006. In order to get the project off the ground, the team worked with a handful of U.S. institutions, including University of Colorado, Boulder and UC Berkeley. And while just getting to Mars is a feat in itself, the team has also set their sights on better understanding the Martian atmosphere, with three main objectives in mind.
One: Characterize the Martian lower atmosphere. So we want to know and characterize the climate, how it changes for the whole Martian year. And then we would like to characterize the exosphere of Mars, so especially looking at hydrogen and oxygen as they are escaping Mars. And then we want to achieve the link between them. Now the Martian atmosphere is still somewhat of a mystery to us, but that’s where the UAE’s probe Hope comes in. Recording day and night for one martian year, or roughly two Earth years, Hope will paint an unprecedented picture of the Martian atmosphere.
The previous missions they looked, let’s say at a point on Mars at 3:00 PM every day. Like they had a good image of that. But what we’re doing is we’re getting that full picture and what it looks like within the full Martian day. And we’re able to achieve that by basically having a different orbit than the rest of the missions. We’re studying a whole day on Mars rather than a specific time. And Hope’s elliptical orbit is quite unique, ranging about 20,000 km to 43,000 km from the Martian surface and taking the probe about 55 hours to complete.
The small car-sized probe will be equipped with three instruments. First, there’s the Emirates Mars InfraRed Spectrometer which is a thermal infrared camera capturing data on the lower atmosphere, measuring the global presence of ice clouds, dust, temperature, and water vapor. Then there’s the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer, that will study the levels of carbon monoxide and oxygen in the thermosphere, while also gathering data on oxygen and hydrogen levels in the exosphere.
And finally there’s the Emirates eXploration Imager that will take the pretty pictures of Mars, capturing high-res photos of the planet. On top of that, it will survey the lower atmosphere by analyzing the ozone, among other measurements. But the Emirates Mars Mission team had to face a couple of unique challenges. First, they were up against a limited launch window and then the global pandemic hit. But they persevered.
A typical mission when it comes to Mars, they take minimum 10 years to be developed while we’re doing it only for six years. There is no way that a mission this big, this complex to be done the same way as the typical 10 year. We have to change the way that we’re doing things in terms of managing projects and making sure that we’re achieving every milestone that we need to. So we don’t miss our launch date because we have this requirement that we need to be there before December, 2021. And you may be wondering why December 2021?
Well, when the mission was first announced, the government set a non-negotiable deadline for the probe to get the red planet by 2021, in order to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary. So the pressure is on. Now after roughly six years of hard work, the launch is just around the corner. The Hope probe will launch from Japan, hitching a ride on an Mitsubishi H-2A rocket. Hope will take seven months to get to Mars, and once there, it will check if all its instruments are functioning. Once systems are all good to go, the probe will begin its wider elliptical orbit gathering data for one full Martian year.
And the team can’t wait for the results. The first thing I think that every team member would like to see is just the first image of Mars, that we are there. That’s I believe like our celebration. And then after that, I would like to see the data. The data that will come out of this probe, it would be freely distributed to everyone who is interested. Whatever accomplishments, the scientific data that we would get, we want to share with everyone. When I sit back and think about, “Yeah, we’re doing a big thing here, it’s a big deal, not just for the country itself, but for the region as well.”
And that is the main objective, or main goal of this mission is to give hope, and that was the name, to the new generation, to the young generation around the country, around the region as well. CTA: To learn more about another mission heading to Mars, check out this episode on NASA’s Perseverance rover.