The Mars Hope orbiter, the first interplanetary probe developed by the United Arab Emirates, successfully arrived in orbit around the Red Planet on Tuesday.
In July 2020, the Emirates, China, and the United States all launched Martin missions—and now Hope is the first to arrive at the planet. Hope completed a high-stakes braking maneuver beginning at 10:30 AM ET, a half-hour automated process that nudged it into orbit around Mars.
It’s a major spaceflight milestone for the Emirates, which is the fifth entity to have successfully placed a spacecraft in Martian orbit, after the United States, the Soviet Union and now Russia, the European Union, and India. Hope is now primed to begin a multi-year mission to gather never-before-seen global views of Mars that will help scientists understand its climate.
Her Excellency Sarah bint Yousef Al Amiri, UAE minister of state for advanced technology and chair of the UAE Space Agency, said the successful arrival brought feelings of relief, happiness, and “extreme elation” in a call.
“I think I saw a reel of my life throughout the last seven years up to that point,” Al Amiri said, referring to the time it took to get Hope to this triumphant moment. “It's been an incredible experience so far, with a lot of challenges.”
“I truly love that at least the Mars orbit insertion came to a culmination where everything happened exactly as we planned it and exactly as it's been rehearsed time and time again,” she added.
Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager and director of the programs management department at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, added in the same call that he was “in shock” after Hope confirmed that it was in Mars orbit.
The orbital insertion was “one of the riskiest points in the mission,” Sharaf said. “Getting that out of the way successfully was good.”
Indeed, the odds of failure were high; most nations that attempt to reach Mars miss on the first try. If Hope deviated from its planned course, the orbiter would have been lost to deep space or it would have ended up as a crater on the Martian surface.
“If there is even a small change from the projected path, then it can either just fly away, so it could be a flyby mission, or if it overcorrects, it can actually crash into Mars,” said Dimitra Atri, a research scientist at the NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Space Science, in a call.
“It has to be the exact window of parameters that we are looking for,” he continued. “That is why it is so risky.”
It was a nerve-wracking moment of truth for the Hope team, which includes Emirati leads along with collaborators from several U.S. universities. But the mission is in good company. China’s Tianwen-1 and NASA’s Perseverance missions, which are both carrying rovers that must perform landings on Mars, are not far behind the Emirati orbiter.
Tianwen-1, China’s first Mars mission, successfully arrived in orbit on Wednesday and the nation will attempt to land a rover on the Martian terrain in May, a feat that would make it only the second nation to operate a surface probe on Mars, after the United States.
Perseverance has no orbiter component, so it will attempt its landing as soon as it arrives at Mars on February 18. If the rover pulls off the landing, it will become NASA’s ninth surface explorer on Mars.
Meanwhile, Hope now joins six operational orbiters around Mars, though it will follow a special orbit that will offer an unprecedented look at the entire planet, including Martian weather patterns across seasonal cycles and geographical regions.
“Its main focus is to look at the global climate of Mars, looking at the weather patterns over a 24-hour period on the dayside and nightside and what is the difference throughout the globe looking at the polar regions versus equatorial regions,” Atri said.
“Plus, the mission duration is two Martian years, which is four Earth years,” he added. “To observe the planet as a whole for two full Martian years, how things change on Mars, has not been done before.”
Now that it has arrived at Mars without a hitch, Hope will take a few months to vault itself into an orbit with its closest approach at 20,000 kilometers in altitude, and its farthest pass at 43,000 kilometers.
It should reach those orbital parameters in April, at which point it will take about 55 hours for the probe to circle Mars. For comparison, most working orbiters at Mars have periods between two and five hours, though India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) follows a highly elliptical polar orbit with a period of 73 hours.
Once it is in position, Hope will spend a few more months calibrating its instruments, so data will probably not start flowing back until the autumn of 2021. But when the orbiter is ready to start sending back regular dispatches, mission leads are optimistic that its unique vantage-point will shed light on Martian phenomena such as dust storms and the interactions between different layers of the planet’s atmosphere.
“We're hoping for a global dust storm during the summer season on Mars,” said Al Amiri. Hope’s continuous coverage will allow the team “to see the evolution of the storm and why it becomes a global dust storm and hopefully fill in the gaps” in our current understanding of these extreme weather events, she explained.
Hope is also tasked with constraining a bigger mystery: How Mars lost its atmosphere. Four billion years ago, the red planet was at least partly blue, judging by the evidence of ancient bodies of water on the Martian surface. These tantalizing signs of bygone rivers and lakes point to the existence of thicker skies and a stronger magnetic field on early Mars, which may have provided a brief window for life to emerge in the planet’s deep past.
Hope’s wide-field view of Mars will help pinpoint how the planet continues to lose core elements of its atmosphere today, which could shed light on its ancient skies.
“Looking back in history is very easy to do when you're studying geology, but it's very hard to do in atmospheres,” said Al Amiri. “The best you can do is understand the modern-day processes of the planet and that, together with geological studies, gives us a look into the past and provides you that question of what happened to Mars's atmosphere.”
“For us, it was very important to ensure that our science fits in and is complementary to that question, because that question is very vital to the overall evolution of Mars as a planet,” she added.
In addition to these scientific objectives, Hope is also a powerful symbol of the UAE’s stated intentions to transition from an oil-centric financial system to a knowledge-based economy. Given its aspirational nature, space exploration is a keystone of this plan; beyond Hope, the Emirati space program has promoted a goal of building the first human settlement on Mars by 2117.
“People are realizing that eventually, our planet is going to move to a greener economy, so oil is going to be phased out,” Atri said. “It is natural that this region also transforms itself to a diversified economy so that there are other sources of income.”
“Their strategy is really to have a STEM-based economy—having tech startups, industries with a basic focus on science research, and things like that,” he continued. “Space is a great way of getting people excited about science.”
Atri added that he has been contacted by scores of students interested in getting involved in the Emirati space program, calling it an “Apollo moment” for the nation. Now that it has completed its perilous voyage, Hope has made good on its purpose as an emblem of the UAE’s ambitions as a spacefaring nation.
“People took ownership of this mission and accepted the risk,” Sharaf said. “I'm not talking just about the government accepting the risk or the team accepting the risk. Everyone, even the public.”
“The whole nation was engaged,” he concluded. “It was amazing.”
Update: This article was updated as Hope successfully began orbiting Mars.
Update: This article has been updated to include comments from Her Excellency Sarah bint Yousef Al Amiri and Emirates Mars Mission project manager Omran Sharaf.