A probe from the United Arab Emirates successfully reached Mars on Tuesday, earning the country a spot in a small group of spacefaring powers that have sent spacecraft to study the fourth planet from the Sun. The UAE hopes the mission will yield key discoveries on Martian weather patterns and catalyze a new science and technology sector as it looks to wean its economy from oil dependence.
“Mission accomplished,” UAE’s vice president Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted as mission control in Dubai celebrated confirmation of the Hope spacecraft’s orbital insertion around Mars at 11:14AM ET.
The SUV-sized Hope probe carried out an intricate and fully automatic maneuver called a Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) on time at 10:30AM ET, mission engineers said. This maneuver slams the brakes on the spacecraft’s final leg of its journey, slowing Hope’s cruising speed of 75,000 mph down to 11,000 mph by firing all six of its Delta-V thrusters for 27 minutes. The deceleration allowed Hope to get swept up in a “capture orbit” around Mars, officially crossing the finish line in its seven-month journey.
“MOI was the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to stresses and pressures it has never before faced,” the mission’s project director, Omran Sharaf, said. “With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”
Manual, real-time control of the spacecraft is impossible, so Hope has been programmed to carry out these orbital dances on its own. Mission control didn’t have confirmation of a successful MOI burn until 11:14AM ET because of a 22-minute roundtrip communications delay through NASA’s Deep Space Network.
For mission managers, Hope’s arrival at Mars was a nerve-racking climax in the UAE’s first mission to deep space. The spacecraft traveled 300 million miles after launching from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center last July, as Earth and Mars aligned in their orbits around the Sun. It’s also the first of three Mars spacecraft visiting the planet this month, with a Chinese spacecraft arriving tomorrow and NASA’s Perseverance rover following next week.
With a successful injection into Mars’ orbit, the spacecraft is on track to spend two years capturing global snapshots of the planet to better understand its atmosphere and weather changes. The spacecraft will carry out a few more maneuvers until April to ease into a closer orbit around Mars that offers “unprecedented local and seasonal time coverage of the Martian atmosphere,” the mission’s science lead Hessa Al Matroushi said. Hope will orbit Mars every 55 hours and capture a complete snapshot every nine days.
UAE officials and program engineers saw the program as a symbolic achievement for the country as it became the first Arab nation to launch a mission to Mars. With Hope reaching Mars, the UAE’s cabinet is aiming to inspire a new science and technology sector as the Gulf State looks to wean its economy from oil dependence. The probe’s arrival marked “a historical moment and a great extraordinary achievement for the Emirati and Arab space sector,” Abu Dhabi mayor Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan tweeted, as translated from Arabic by Twitter’s translation service.
The timing of the Hope mission was crucial. UAE launched the probe in a narrow, roughly two-month window last summer when Earth and Mars aligned at their closest point around the Sun. Such alignment only happens once every two years, and mission managers wanted to celebrate UAE’s 50th anniversary this December with the country’s first Mars mission. Under pressure from UAE’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the timeline was “very, very strict,” Sharaf told The Verge last year.
“Your bold endeavor to explore the Red Planet will inspire many others to reach for the stars. We hope to join you at Mars soon with” Mars Perseverance, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s science mission directorate, tweeted.