A probe is on its way to Mars that will study the planet's history, and it could help with crewed missions in the future.
The United Arab Emirates launched the "Hope" probe at 5:58 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, June 19. The mission launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, using Japanese space agency JAXA's H-IIA rocket. Just under 60 minutes after launch, the launch process completed and the probe separated from the launch vehicle. The probe has now deployed its solar panels, and it's expected to arrive at Mars in February 2021 – a year that will also mark 50 years since the founding of the country.
Once it arrives and starts orbiting Mars, the probe will use three instruments over the course of one Mars year (or 687 Earth days) to dig into the mysteries of its atmosphere. Why is oxygen and hydrogen escaping from its upper atmosphere? How do the lower atmospheric conditions change over time? And how are the lower and upper atmosphere linked?
Answering these questions and more could explain Mars' past, and pave the way for future crewed missions. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has previously described plans to build a city on Mars by 2050, while the UAE has set the goal of a Mars city by 2117. Adnan Al Rais, Mars 2117 program manager at the UAE's Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Center, explained during the livestream that the mission "will help also future missions," such as "one day when we send humans to Mars."
The mission will help develop a more complete picture of the atmosphere on Mars. This enhanced understanding of the conditions of Mars could help with those missions that aim to send humans to the planet.
"Today, the Martian atmosphere [is] being studied during certain times of the day and night and leaving more than 80 percent of the Martian atmosphere unexplored," Al Rais said. "With the Emirates Mars mission, we will have that global understanding of the Martian atmosphere that will help us in future missions."
What does Hope want to discover? – The probe will look at the planet's atmosphere. It will use that to understand how it changed over history. Scientists believe Mars may have once been a warmer and wetter planet, but it's unclear how exactly it transformed into today's dry desertland.
Bruce Jakosky, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and a member of the mission's science team, told Inverse last week that the mission could help explain why atmospheric escape over millions of years changed the planet's climate.
"Something significant happened to Mars' climate and changed it," Jakosky said. "We see evidence that loss to space has been a significant process but we don’t know how the process worked."
Studying the planet's climate in this detail will help fill in the gaps of knowledge around Mars' climate. This will give a more complete picture of the Mars atmosphere, and it could help explain extreme phenomena like dust storms. A better understanding of the atmosphere, including weather events like these, will help with planned future missions to land humans on Mars and establish permanent settlements.
What instruments will Hope use? – The probe will orbit Mars once every 55 days, measuring the planet from a distance of 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles) above the surface.
The UAE Space Agency explained how it will use three instruments to complete its mission:
- The Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer. This will measure the lower atmosphere using the infrared band. It will look at how dust, water ice, and water vapor are distributed around the planet. It will also provide a three-dimensional view of the atmosphere's thermal structure.
- The Emirates Exploration Imager. This will look at the lower atmosphere using visible and ultraviolet light wavelengths. It will capture images of Mars and measure the depths of water ice in the atmosphere. The sensor can record a maximum of 180 frames per second and record 4K movies, should the team wish to do so.
- The Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer. This will use ultraviolet wavelengths to measure oxygen and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere, while also measuring carbon monoxide and oxygen in the thermosphere that lies around 100 to 200 kilometers (62 to 124 miles) above the surface.
The successful launch received praise from fans around the world. One well-wisher came from NASA Perseverance's Twitter account, dedicated to the Mars rover that is also launching this month and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, wrote on his Twitter page that it's "truly amazing what [the UAE Space Agency] & [MBR Space Center] have accomplished in such a short time." He added that "hope is exactly what the world needs."