DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched its first mission to Mars early on Monday (Jul 20) as it strives to develop its scientific and technology capabilities and move away from its reliance on oil.
The Hope Probe blasted off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 1.58am UAE time (6.58am Japanese time) for a seven-month journey to the red planet, where it will orbit and send back data about the atmosphere.
A live feed of the launch showed the rocket carrying the unmanned probe, known as “Al-Amal” in Arabic, lifting off.
Five minutes after launch, the rocket carrying the probe was on course, carrying out the first separation of its flight.
The first Arab mission to Mars was initially due to launch on Jul 14, but has been delayed twice due to bad weather.
There are currently eight active missions exploring Mars; some orbit the planet and some have landed on its surface. China and the United States also plan to send another this year, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.
In October, Mars will be a comparatively short 62.07 million km from Earth, according to NASA.
Hope is expected to reach Mars’ orbit by February 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE, an alliance of seven emirates.
MARTIAN YEAR OF ORBIT
Unlike the two other Mars ventures scheduled for this year, it will not land on the Red Planet, but instead orbit it for a whole Martian year, or 687 days.
While the objective of the Mars mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, the probe is a foundation for a much bigger goal – building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years.
The UAE also wants the project to serve as a source of inspiration for Arab youth, in a region too often wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.
The Hope Probe is expected to detach from the launch rocket about an hour after blast-off.
That’s when the real excitement will begin, UAE Mars mission’s deputy project manager Sarah al-Amiri told AFP before the launch.
“In my heart of hearts, I’m looking forward to the initial 24 hours after separation, and that’s where we see the results of our work,” said Amiri, who is also Minister of State for Advanced Sciences.
“It is when we first get the signal, when we know that every part of the spacecraft is functioning, when the solar panels are deployed, when we hit our trajectory and are headed towards Mars,” she told AFP earlier this month.
The Emirates Mars Mission has cost US$200 million, according to Amiri.
To develop and build the Hope Probe, Emiratis and Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) worked with US educational institutions.
The MBRSC space centre in Dubai will oversee the spacecraft during its 494 million km journey at an average speed of 121,000kmh.
Several dozen probes – most of them American – have set off for the Red Planet since the 1960s. Many never made it that far, or failed to land.
The drive to explore Mars flagged until the confirmation less than 10 years ago that water once flowed on its surface.
Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, has said the Hope Probe will offer a special perspective on the elusive Red Planet.
“What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have an holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons,” Sharaf told a pre-launch briefing.
“We have a strategy to contribute to the global effort in developing technologies and science work that will help one day if humanity decides to put a human on Mars.”
The UAE first announced plans for the mission in 2014 and launched a National Space Programme in 2017 to develop local expertise. Its population of 9.4 million, most of whom are foreign workers, lacks the scientific and industrial base of the big spacefaring nations.
The UAE already has nine functioning satellites in orbit, with plans to launch another eight in coming years. And in September, it sent the first Emirati into space on a mission to the International Space Station.
But the UAE’s ambitions go well beyond that, with a goal of building a human settlement on Mars by 2117.