UAE probe to Mars set for launch next month with message of ‘Hope’

Plans for a human settlement by 2117.
Wednesday 10/06/2020
A visitor takes a picture of an illustration depicting an astronaut with the Emirati national flag outside Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai. (AFP)
A visitor takes a picture of an illustration depicting an astronaut with the Emirati national flag outside Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai. (AFP)

DUBAI – The first Arab space mission to Mars, armed with probes to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, is designed to inspire the region’s youth and pave the way for more scientific breakthroughs, officials in United Arab Emirates (UAE) said.

The unmanned probe named Al-Amal — “Hope” in Arabic — is to blast off from a Japanese space centre on July 15, with preparations now in their final stages.

Hope’s main structure is a cubical made out of aluminium with a composite face-sheet. It measures 2.37 metres wide, 2.9 metre long, and weighs approximately 1,500 kilograms when fully fuelled.

It was built by a team of 150 Emirati engineers who collaborated with American engineers and scientists in the development of the spacecraft at three US universities.

The UAE sent its first astronaut into space last year and is also planning to build a “Science City” to replicate conditions on Mars, where it hopes to build a human settlement by 2117.

Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, said that apart from the ambitious scientific goals, the mission was designed to hark back to the region’s golden age of cultural and scientific achievements.

“The UAE wanted to send a strong message to the Arab youth and to remind them of the past, that we used to be generators of knowledge,” he said.

“People of different backgrounds and religion coexisted and shared a similar identity,” he said of the Arab world, now fractured with many countries locked in turmoil.

“Put your differences aside, focus on building the region, you have a rich history and you can do much more.”

Sarah al-Amiri, the mission’s deputy project manager, said it was imperative that the project have a long-term scientific impact.

“It is not a short-lived mission, but rather one that continues throughout the years and produces valuable scientific findings — be it by researchers in the UAE or globally,” she said.

She added that the probe will provide a comprehensive image of weather dynamics in Mars’s atmosphere with the use of three scientific instruments.

A file picture shows Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Dubai, speaking among engineers and scientists during a ceremony to unveil UAE’s Mars Mission in Dubai. (AFP)
A file picture shows Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Dubai, speaking among engineers and scientists during a ceremony to unveil UAE’s Mars Mission in Dubai. (AFP)

The first is an infrared spectrometer to measure the planet’s lower atmosphere and analyse the temperature structure. The second, a high-resolution imager that will provide information about the ozone; and a third, an ultraviolet spectrometer to measure oxygen and hydrogen levels from a distance of up to 43,000 kilometres from the surface.

The three tools will allow researchers to observe the Red Planet “at all times of the day and observe all of Mars during those different times,” Amiri said.

“Something we want to better understand, and that’s important for planetary dynamics overall, is the reasons for the loss of the atmosphere and if the weather system on Mars actually has an impact on loss of hydrogen and oxygen,” she said, referring to the two components that make up water.

Sharaf said that the probe will begin being fuelled next week.

It is scheduled to launch on July 15 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre and return to Earth in February 2021, depending on many variables including the weather.

The February date coincided with the UAE’s golden jubilee celebrations, marking the historic union of the emirates.

“If we miss the launch opportunity, which is between mid-July and early August, then we’d have to wait for two years for another window,” he said.

But hopes are high that the mission will take place as scheduled, and not be derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Emirates Mars Mission, the team had to advance the timetable due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sharaf was earlier quoted in a CNN report saying, “When Covid-19 came into the equation, it definitely took the complexity to a different level. Hope was shipped to Japan three weeks earlier than planned, while a team was sent two weeks prior, allowing them time to quarantine.”