Hope: UAE celebrates launch of its first spacecraft bound for Mars

20 Jul 2020

Image: © grejak/Stock.adobe.com

The UAE’s Hope spacecraft successfully launched from Japan on a seven-month journey to study the atmosphere of Mars.

If all goes according to plan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will join the small list of countries to successfully send a spacecraft to another planet. The Verge reported that the country’s Hope spacecraft successfully launched on top of a Japanese H-IIA rocket from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre and will now spend the next seven months travelling to Mars.

In February 2021, Hope is expected to enter an elongated orbit of the red planet, where it will spend its mission analysing Mars’s atmosphere and climate. During a livestream of the launch, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, said: “Years of hard work and dedication have paid off in a big way.

“Thanks to the mission team efforts, the UAE’s first spacecraft, which six years ago was just a concept, just an idea, is now flying into space well on its way to another planet. This is a huge accomplishment. But it’s just the beginning.”

Space exploration on a budget

The mission was proposed back in 2014 as a means of encouraging teenagers to pursue careers in STEM and to mark the country’s 50th anniversary, which will occur in December 2021. It was essential for the mission to launch this summer in order to meet this deadline as the ideal planetary alignment for launch only occurs once every 26 months.

This was the first interplanetary craft developed by the UAE, having so far produced a series of Earth-observing satellites. The Hope mission was set a budget of $200m by the country’s government, and engineers were tasked with building it with as little outside help as possible.

Project manager for the mission, Omran Sharaf, said just prior to Hope’s launch: “The government was very clear to us about it: they wanted us to come up with a new model of executing such missions and delivering such missions.

“So they didn’t want something with a big, big budget. They wanted something to be delivered quick, fast, and something that we can share with the rest of the world, about how they can approach missions.”

The UAE team collaborated with US academic institutions including the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The launch today (20 July) went relatively smoothly, bar a brief fear that one of Hope’s solar panels failed to deploy. However, both solar panels were later confirmed to be open with the spacecraft operating as planned.

NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, congratulated the UAE on its achievement.

“All of us at NASA are excited about the prospects for ambitious future partnerships with the UAE in low-Earth orbit and, via the Artemis programme, on and around the Moon with the ultimate destination of Mars,” he said.

“Even during these challenging times, humanity’s spirit of exploration and curiosity remain undeterred.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic