The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is sending a spacecraft to take measurements of Mars' climate and atmosphere, and help scientists understand the planet's warm, wet and possibly habitable past. The Arab World's first mission to Mars will be the first to capture a full picture of the Martian atmosphere in order to uncover clues about ancient life on Mars.
The Emirates Mars Mission's Hope Probe is taking off from the Tanegashima Space Center, located on a remote island in southwestern Japan, between July 20-22 depending on the weather conditions.
The probe will reach Mars' orbit in about seven months, traveling 308 million miles in space to its destination. Once there, the spacecraft will spend an entire Martian year (or the equivalent of 687 days) orbiting the Red Planet and collecting data on the Martian climate and atmosphere.
It will take the Hope Probe 55 days to complete one orbit around Mars, observing the Martian atmosphere from a distance of 20,000 kilometers.
Bruce Jakosky, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and Associate Director for Science for the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and a member of the science team for the mission, is hoping to find answers for questions that past missions to the Red Planet have built on.
"We are sending a lot of spacecraft to Mars, the Martian environment system is a very complicated one and it’s one that can’t be explored with a single spacecraft," Jakosky tells Inverse. "The Emirates Mars Mission builds on all the missions that have come before it."
Although Mars is a dry, desolate world today, scientists believe that it was once a warm, wet planet that may have hosted life. In order to help unlock clues about Mars' past, scientists need to understand the process by which the Red Planet lost its atmosphere over millions of years through a process known as atmospheric escape.
"Something significant happened to Mars' climate and changed it," Jakosky says. "We see evidence that loss to space has been a significant process but we don’t know how the process worked."
In order to help figure out how gases, mainly oxygen and hydrogen, manages to escape through Mars' atmosphere and into outer space, the Hope Probe will observe the atmosphere from a near equatorial orbit, meaning that it will be able to observe the lower and upper atmosphere of Mars at all times, and note the interactions between the two atmospheric layers.
Gases would have had to escape through Mars' upper atmosphere, but they got there through the lower atmosphere. Therefore, the mission aims to determine how energy, dust and different gases travel through the lower atmosphere to the upper atmosphere.
The Hope Probe is equipped with three instruments that work simultaneously to collect data about Mars' atmosphere, weather and water.
"One of the things we learned about Mars is that you can’t study one part of it in isolation," Jakosky says. "If we’re looking at the atmosphere, we’re interested in how it affects the ability of liquid water to have existed on the surface of Mars."
- The Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI) is a multi-wavelength camera that will capture images of the Martian surface to observe the clouds of dust that form on Mars and measure the distribution of water ice clouds in the lower atmosphere.
- The Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) is quite similar to the one that we fly over Earth to measure weather, dust, water vapor and clouds in the lower atmosphere, as well as the temperatures of the surface.
- The Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) will study the upper atmosphere of Mars through different ultraviolet wavelengths, and determine the distribution of oxygen and carbon monoxide.
A mission of hope
The mission itself has been six years in the making, and marks the first Arab spacecraft headed towards the Red Planet.
“Something like 50% of all missions to Mars to date have failed – it’s a huge challenge for a young nation to undertake a mission like this," Omran Sharaf, mission lead, said in a statement. "But we have already – before we even launch the mission – learned so much and accomplished so much in taking on that challenge. It has truly transformed The Emirates’ capability in space systems engineering, science and research and had enormous positive impacts on our science community in general.”
The UAE has previously sent satellites into Earth's lower orbit through their national space program based in Dubai, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. The Gulf state also crossed a major milestone last year, sending the first Arab astronaut to board the International Space Station.
Hazzaa al-Mansoori, 35-years-old, launched to space in September 2019.
Centuries ago, Arab astronomers were at the forefront of space discoveries, with the names for many celestial object originating in Arabic such as the famous star Betelgeuse which was originally called ibṭ al-jawzā (or the armpit of the central one).
However, over time, the world of astronomy was dominated by space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency, with various efforts by Russian, Chinese and Japanese space agencies as well.
"I’m excited by the Hope Mission because of the reasons they’re doing it," Jakosky says. "The Emiratis are doing it not just to do science, but also as a way of showing their population that there are other things we can do."
"As a scientist, I think the more the merrier and the better the science when we get different perspectives from different countries," he adds.
It's going to be a busy summer for the Red Planet. NASA is getting ready to launch the Perseverance rover to Mars during a launch window that opens on July 30 in order to search for signs of ancient life on Mars. Meanwhile, China is planning on sending an orbiter, lander and rover to Mars as part of its Tianwen-1, also scheduled for a July launch.
Jakosky believes that there is a combination of different elements that puts Mars at the top of the list when it comes to space missions.
We’re interested in studying other planets because we learn the processes, and why are they similar to the Earth and why they are different," he says. "This could help us understand whether there’s life elsewhere in the Solar System."
Mars has shown evidence of similar processes that have taken place on Earth, and it is also close enough to Earth where it takes a few months to reach it whereas it would take years to reach planets in the outer Solar System.
Additionally, Mars is currently being considered for a future human mission whereby space agencies are hoping to send humans to explore another planet for the first time.
"It's a combination of science, accessibility, and the fact that we’re preparing for human missions," Jakosky says. "There's just a tremendous amount of interest."