The United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe has entered the orbit of Mars.

The probe was launched from Japan seven months ago. Hope successfully undertook a critical manoeuvre to entering the planet’s orbit known as Mars orbital insertion (MOI) yesterday. The mission represents a first for any Mars probe – to explore the atmosphere of the planet and gather climate data.

The spacecraft rotated to position for a deceleration burn of 27 minutes and slowed down from a cruising speed of 121,000km/h to nearer to 18,000km/h to perform the manouevre. The process will have burned around half of the fuel contained within the spacecraft and had to be carefully balanced as too slow an entrance could have seen Hope crash on Mars, and too fast would have run the risk of missing the planet.

Probe reliant on self-correcting systems

With an 11-minute one-way radio delay to Earth, the probe was reliant on self-correcting systems to achieve MOI. This allowed it to autonomously manage performance issues, exceptional circumstances and mitigate any system failures which might occur without human intervention.

The UAE is the fifth country to reach Mars and is the first of three missions to arrive on the Red Planet this month. China’s Tianwen-1 mission is attempting to reach Mars’ orbit today (February 10) and NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to arrive on February 19.

The signal from the spacecraft was met by cheers from the control room at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. Omran Sharaf, Emirates Mars Mission (Hope Probe) project director, said: “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.”

“While we have spent six years designing, testing and retesting the system, there is no way to fully simulate the impacts of the deceleration and navigation required to achieve MOI autonomously. With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”

Hope to complete one orbit every 55 hours

Once Hope has been captured by Mars’ gravitational pull, it will enter a phase known as the capture orbit. This will takes the spacecraft from a distance of 1,000 to 49,380km from Mars’s planetary surface. Instrumentation will be tested during this phase with Hope then transitioning into the its 20,000–43,000km elliptical science orbit by April 2021. The probe will complete one orbit of Mars every 55 hours.

Hope will remain in contact with the control room during the capture orbit phase, but will only relay information two or three times a week during the science phase. Data download and the upload of instructions to the probe will take six to eight hours per session.

Hope explores conditions throughout the Martian atmosphere from different data points and gauge daily and seasonal changes. The probe will measure the rates of escape of hydrogen and oxygen and record how the planet’s upper atmosphere behaves at different times during the day and at different distances relative to Mars.

UAE Space Agency hopes to release data by September

Sarah Yousef Al Amiri, minister of state for advanced technologies, chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, hopes the UAE will be able to share the data by this autumn.

She told the PA news agency: “One of our primary objectives is to ensure that we share the data as soon as we are comfortable, as a science team, that the data is usable by scientists and the data is correct.We hope to release the data at the latest in the beginning of September, and it will be data from the capture orbit that has been captured around Mars, and also from the beginning of our science phase.”

* FINN caught up with HE Dr Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director of the UAE Space Agency just after after the launch of Hope. Watch to find out more about how the mission aims to learn more about the Martian climate and inspire the next generation of Emirati scientists and technologists.

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