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Emirates Mars launch will represent historic first for Arab world

An artist's conception depicts the United Arab Emirates Mars Hope orbiter near the Red Planet. Image courtesy of UAE Space Agency
An artist's conception depicts the United Arab Emirates Mars Hope orbiter near the Red Planet. Image courtesy of UAE Space Agency

July 14 (UPI) -- The first of several planned missions to Mars this summer is scheduled to lift off from Japan on Thursday, representing a historic first attempt at an interplanetary mission for the United Arab Emirates.

Launch of the Emirati orbiting satellite, named Hope, is planned for Thursday at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Tanegashima Space Center, about 450 miles south of Hiroshima, aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket. It had been postponed from Tuesday because of bad weather.

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The launch is to be followed by a Chinese Tianwen-1 Mars mission planned for July 23, and then NASA's Mars Perseverance rover no earlier than July 30.

Assembly of the Hope satellite in Dubai -- with help from the University of Colorado -- already has created an enthusiasm for space within the UAE, said Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri, chair of the nation's Council of Scientists.

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"We see more and more children dreaming about space and getting excited about it. We see more interest in space science," Al-Amiri said.

The mission is the first attempt by any Arab country to reach another planet. Only the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India sent spacecraft to Mars.

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The UAE planned for the mission to arrive at Mars in February to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the country's founding in 1971.

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Hope will carry three instruments that will circle Mars for four Earth years -- two years on Mars -- to gather data and images of the atmosphere. The goal is to gain a better understanding of Martian weather and atmospheric processes around the entire planet in all of its seasons, not just in a few locations, Al-Amiri said.

The project could last longer, but Al-Amiri declined to discuss what further science might be accomplished beyond the planned duration.

"The mission will be covering the full day-to-night cycle ... to capture the full range of conditions in Martian weather systems," she said.

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The data, which UAE intends to share with up to 200 nations, could help scientists understand one of the mysteries about Mars: why the planet lost much of its atmosphere over millions of years.

"We'll be looking at how did Mars go from a denser atmosphere to a very thin atmosphere by looking at whether or not the Mars weather system plays a role in 'kicking out' hydrogen," Al-Amiri said.

The orbiter will deliver unique science, but the instruments on board are fairly standard technology used on other space missions, said Brett Landin, a spacecraft systems engineer at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who leads the mission's spacecraft team.

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A team of UAE citizens built the Hope spacecraft at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, with total mission cost of about $200 million. The orbiter is about 9 1/2 feet long and 8 feet wide.

"For Earth's atmosphere, we look at clouds. For Mars, we'll look at any traces of vapor. Here we monitor fires from orbit. For Mars, we'll be looking at dust storms," Landin said.

Landin said the UAE chose Japan's H-2A rocket because of its capabilities and because the two nations had cooperated on other space-related missions. The Emirates Mars Mission launch will be the 42nd for the H-2A.

The rocket, manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is about 174 feet tall. In its most powerful configuration with four boosters, the rocket can achieve almost 2 million pounds of thrust, but this launch will use two boosters.

The mission received coaching and guidance from U.S. experts, but the Emiratis learned the technology and accomplished their goal, Landin said.

"This was built by young engineers in the UAE who didn't know how to do this just six years ago," he said. "The goal was technology transfer."

Final construction of the satellite and transport from the Middle East to Japan occurred under COVID-19 restrictions, said Pete Withnell, program manager with the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

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Although the pandemic made logistics more complicated, the schedule was not affected, he said.

"We had to travel, and working that out during the pandemic required volunteers to travel and be away from their homes. Quarantine delays were added. Embassies and governments were brought in to help us meet the timeline for launch," Withnell said.

The cluster of Mars missions launching in 2020 is because of required timing, he said, since Mars and Earth only come into close proximity every two years. If the launch window is missed, the mission would be postponed for at least that length of time.

Even the construction of the spacecraft was a big win for the UAE, Withnell said.

"I think this has been a game-changer for the UAE, definitely, like the U.S. moon shot," he said. "Many people were skeptical. I think we'll see big things happening there in the future."

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