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  • Writer's picturePam King Sams

Mars Mission From the UAE Begins Orbit of Red Planet

The Hope spacecraft fired its engines on Tuesday, aiming to be grappled by the planet’s gravity and begin its atmospheric science studies.

The first in a parade of three new visitors to Mars arrives Tuesday when a robotic probe named Hope, the first interplanetary mission undertaken by an Arab nation, has begun orbiting the red planet.

For people in the United Arab Emirates, just getting there has become a source of pride. Over the weekend, a number of prominent buildings and monuments in the wealthy oil country, which is about the size of Maine, were lit up in red in honor of Mars, the red planet.

“From the U.A.E. government’s perspective, basically 90 percent of this mission has been achieved successfully,” said Omran Sharaf, the project manager of Hope.

For the remaining 10 percent, there was little to do but watch and wait as the spacecraft executed instructions already loaded into its computer.

Sarah al-Amiri, who leads the science portion of the mission, said she had felt a full of range of emotions when the spacecraft was launched last summer. But as it approached Mars, she said, “This is further intensifying them.”.

Once in orbit, the spacecraft can begin its study of the red planet’s atmosphere and weather.

On Tuesday controllers at the mission operations center in Dubai received word from the spacecraft that it had started firing thrusters to slow itself down and allow it to fall into the thrall of the gravity of Mars.

Because it took 11 minutes for the radio signal to travel to Earth from Mars, the thruster firing had actually have started 11 minutes earlier, and if anything had gone wrong, it would already have been too late.

Twenty-seven minutes later, the thrusters shut off. Five minutes after the end of the firing, the spacecraft passed behind Mars and was out of contact for 15 minutes. When it re-emerged, controllers confirmed that it was zipping along a highly elliptical path around Mars.

The mission is to spend two years studying how dust storms and other weather conditions near the surface affect the speed at which Martian air is leaking away into outer space.

One day after the Hope maneuver, a Chinese spacecraft, Tianwen-1, is to also enter orbit around Mars. The Chinese mission is carrying a lander and a rover to explore a large impact basin called Utopia Planitia, but those are not to detach from the orbiter and head to the surface until May.

Then on Thursday next week, NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, will also arrive at Mars. Without first entering orbit, it will instead quickly decelerate from 12,000 miles per hour to a complete stop on the surface of Mars, what NASA calls “seven minutes of terror.”

Perseverance’s target is Jezero Crater, a dried-up lake that appears to be a site where signs of life, if life ever arose on Mars, could be preserved.

All three missions launched last July to take advantage of a favorable alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs every 26 months.

While NASA has decades of experience launching spacecraft to other planets and China has in recent years successfully sent a series of robotic missions to the moon, the United Arab Emirates is a newcomer to planetary science.

The Hope mission is an unusual collaboration between the United Arab Emirates and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a research institute at the University of Colorado that has been working on space missions for more than half a century.

Although the spacecraft was built in Colorado, many engineers from the U.A.E. spent years living there and gaining expertise as they worked with their more experienced American counterparts.

Ms. al-Amiri said the mission had also spurred wider interest in space, with people in the U.A.E. asking questions like why is there a delay in communications between Earth and Mars and why is it hard to enter orbit.

“It’s been excellent to further science communication with the general public and gain an understanding in an area which was largely ignored, not only within the country, but within the region,” Ms. al-Amiri said. “It wasn’t something that was a topic of conversation.”

Because the U.A.E. also does not have rockets or launching pads, the Hope spacecraft traveled to Japan for its lift to space, launching in July on an H-IIA rocket built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited.

In the seven months since, the spacecraft, which weighs about 3,000 pounds and is about the size of an S.U.V., has traveled 300 million miles. Mission controllers were able to forgo the two final planned course corrections, because the spacecraft remained right on target.

Along the way, the spacecraft was able to perform some bonus science observations. In one, Hope and BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese spacecraft that is on a spiraling path to Mercury, turned to face each other and made identical measurements of the hydrogen between the two spacecraft. That should help scientists working on both missions to calibrate their instruments as well as learn some new information about the solar system.

Another set of observations attempted to track interplanetary dust.

“The opportunity presented itself, and we know that these data sets are quite rare for scientists who are studying that type of science, and therefore, we hope to release it soon and benefit the community,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

By Kenneth Chang, New York Times


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