The UAE’s Mars probe could not have been better named.
Success or failure were always only secondary to the mission’s greatest achievement. To lift up our heads and show us the universe.
The country made history on Tuesday evening when it joined an elite club of five nations that have sent a spacecraft to the Red Planet.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, personally thanked staff from mission control in Dubai.
[You were] part of a generation that makes us proud. You took our honour and our reputation up to Mars
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed
The Crown Prince said the bright young Emiratis who led the mission, including project chief Omran Sharaf, were “part of a generation that makes us proud. You took our honour and our reputation up to Mars”.
After seven months in space and six years since its inception, Hope defied a 50 per cent risk of failure to enter the Mars orbit.
And its lonely 493.5 million kilometres journey through space was an incredible one.
It first blasted off from Japan’s Tanegashima Island in July, 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, overseen by a skeleton self-isolating crew and with almost no live spectators.
It survived the initial launch, the jettisoning of rockets, course correction manoeuvres and maintained contact with mission control in Dubai.
But on Tuesday evening, Emirati engineers faced a nail-biting wait as it made its final approach.
At 7.30pm, it fired its thrusters and used half of its 800kg of fuel to slam on the brakes and cut its speed from 120,000kph to 18,000kph.
The effect – not that any human saw it – was a spectacular feat of engineering.
As a result of the distance between Earth and Mars, engineers in Dubai waited at least 11 minutes for the message confirming thrusters worked. The six thrusters fired for about 30 minutes in all.
During that time, all contact was lost as scheduled when the probe disappeared behind the Red Planet.
Then came the signal: success.
It could have all gone wrong. Due to the complexity involved and the wild, unforgiving nature of space, many previous missions have been lost at this point – or much earlier.
To date, more than half of Mars missions have failed. The first from early Soviet attempts to China’s Yinghuo-1 in 2011, whether on the launch pad, on approach to Mars, at points in between.
Sarah Al Amiri, Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency and Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, said the project went through setbacks along the way but were overcome.
“I started working on this programme at the end of 2013 and it’s been a series of challenges that we’ve sometimes thought were unsurmountable.
“We had only six years to design and develop it. The budget we had wasn’t very high. We went through various times when things broke. We have to fix it in time to get the spacecraft to where we needed it to be.
“What has made this mission remarkable is not only the 200 Emiratis that were working on this, it’s the 450 people from different continents, backgrounds and beliefs. This was truly an international endeavour and this is what science needs to be, this is what exploration is all about.”
At Burj Park in Dubai, officials and media who gathered to watch the orbit on big screens cheered as the mission was hailed a success.
The world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was lit up throughout the event and displayed the faces of the engineers who worked tirelessly on the mission over the past six years.
A projection of the Hope probe was also shown on its façade, as well as images of the Red Planet.
Science mission begins
Next, the science begins.
The Hope probe mission was not a publicity project.
From the start, the project’s engineers and UAE leaders wanted to fill a gap in research and make ground-breaking discoveries about the Red Planet.
Hope is best described as a weather or climate satellite.
It will study how energy moves through the atmosphere throughout the day and throughout the seasons of its 687-day year.
Hope is one of three Mars missions set for this year. China’s Tianwen-1 is due to enter Martian orbit on Wednesday. In addition to an orbiter, the spacecraft will set down a lander and rover to explore the surface of the planet.
Nasa’s Perseverance rover is also due to land on the surface of Mars this month.
In a message on Twitter, Nasa congratulated the Emirati team on its success and quoted the 10th century Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi.
“Dear Hope Mars Mission, congratulations on arriving at Mars! In the words of the poet Al Mutanabbi: “If you ventured in pursuit of glory, don’t be satisfied with less than the stars.”
As with all Mars research, scientists want to understand why Mars once had water – and what happened to it.
This involves studying the behaviour of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen at the very top of the atmosphere. It is thought that understanding these could explain the erosion of the Red Planet’s atmosphere by the particles that stream away from the Sun.
The probe’s capabilities also mean we should see hugely impressive images of the Red Planet soon.
This, it is hoped, will also capture the imagination of young Arabs around the world, and make them proud to be among the stars.