UAE on edge as ‘Hope’ space probe to make tricky maneuver into Mars orbit

Emiratis hope successful mission to map Red Planet’s weather will be an inspiration for country’s youth, drive development of science and technology

Illustration provided by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre depicts the United Arab Emirates' Hope Mars probe, June 1, 2020. (Alexander McNabb/MBRSC via AP)
Illustration provided by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre depicts the United Arab Emirates' Hope Mars probe, June 1, 2020. (Alexander McNabb/MBRSC via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) — A tense half-hour on Tuesday will determine the fate of the UAE’s “Hope” probe to Mars, as the Arab world’s first space mission carries out a tricky maneuver to enter the Red Planet’s orbit.

If successful, the probe, which is designed to reveal the secrets of Martian weather, will become the first of three spacecraft potentially to arrive at the Red Planet this month.

The United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States all launched missions last July, taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars were closest to each other.

The venture marks the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE’s seven emirates.

Landmarks across the Gulf state have been lit up in red at night and government accounts and police patrol cars were emblazoned with the #ArabstoMars hashtag.

A view of the Burj al-Arab hotel, lit red ahead of the UAE’s ‘Hope’ probe’s arrival in Mars’ orbit, February 7, 2021 (GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)

Hope, al-Amal in Arabic, will begin a 27-minute “burn” at 1530 GMT (5:30 p.m. in Jerusalem; 10:30 a.m. in New York) to slow itself enough to be pulled in by Martian gravity, in what Emirati officials say is the most challenging part of the mission.

It will rotate and fire all six of its powerful thrusters to dramatically slow its average cruising speed of 121,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) per hour to about 18,000 kph.

With an 11-minute communications lag — the time it takes for a signal to travel back to Earth — the spacecraft must be highly autonomous.

“Fifty percent of missions that tried before us were not able to enter orbit,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and Dubai’s ruler.

However, he said, even if the probe does not enter orbit, “we have entered history. This is the farthest point in the universe that Arabs have reached in our history.”

The “burn” will end at 1557 GMT, and at 1608 GMT the UAE will have its moment of truth.

If all goes well, Dubai’s needle-shaped Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, will be at the center of a celebratory show.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, gives a speech during a special session at the World Government Summit 2017, in Dubai on February 12, 2017. (AFP/Stringer)

“Twenty-seven blind minutes will determine the fate of seven years of work,” Sarah Al-Amiri, chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency and minister of state for advanced technology, tweeted this week.

‘Bigger objective’

While the probe is designed to provide a comprehensive image of the planet’s weather dynamics, it is also a step towards a much more ambitious goal — building a human settlement on Mars within 100 years.

Apart from cementing its status as a key regional player, 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.

“This project means a lot for the nation, for the whole region, and for the global scientific and space community,” Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, told AFP.

“It’s not about reaching Mars, it’s a tool for a much bigger objective. The government wanted to see a big shift in the mindset of Emirati youth… to expedite the creation of an advanced science and technology sector in the UAE.”

An Emirati man watches the launch of the ‘Hope’ space probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2020. (Jon Gambrell/AP)

To mark the historic moment, the UAE this week projected onto the Dubai night sky images of Mars’ two moons — Phobos and Deimos — to allow residents “to see what the probe sees.”

Unlike the other two Mars ventures, China’s Tianwen-1 and Mars 2020 from the United States, the UAE’s probe will not land on the Red Planet.

Hope will use three scientific instruments to monitor the planet’s atmosphere and is expected to begin transmitting data back to Earth in September 2021, to be made available to scientists around the world.

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