The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will make history by being the first Arab nation to launch a spacecraft on Mars. The Emirates Mars Mission, also known as the Hope Mars Mission, will start on Thursday, July 16, and is due to enter orbit around Mars in February 2021. It will collect data about the Martian atmosphere, including the relationship between the upper and lower layers of the atmosphere, and observe how it changes between seasons.

The Hope spacecraft weighs 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) including fuel and is less than 3 meters long, which is about the size of a small SUV. It is equipped with three solar panel wings that deliver up to 477 watts of power for charging the batteries.

Engineers at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center work on the Hope spacecraft. UAE Space Agency

Reaching Mars is a big challenge for any agency. "It's a very small goal," Pete Withnell, program manager at the University of Colorado Boulder's Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory and Mission Hope scientist, told reporters at a press conference. "It corresponds to an archer who hits a target 21 kilometers away at a distance of one kilometer. So this is not for the faint of heart."

When asked whether he was concerned about the outcome of the mission, Omran Sharaf, Project Leader for the Hope Mission, given the recent failed attempts by India and Israel to make moon landings, said the mission would do so even if the ship did Mars would still be worth pursuing. "It's a big challenge. It's risky. But it's not about getting there. For the Emirates, it's more about the journey and the impact. Getting there is one of the goals. But that doesn't mean the mission failed is if we don't get there, ”he said.

So you see the start on Thursday

The start takes place at 1:45 p.m. PT on Thursday, July 16. You can follow the event live on the UAE Space Agency website. There you will find streams with comments in English or Arabic. There will also be a video-only version without comment.

What Hope Wants to Discover

Hope's goal is to collect data about the Martian atmosphere, considering both the upper and lower atmospheres and how the two interact and change over the seasons. Other missions have addressed the subject, although Hope will be unusual in that it offers a broader view of the atmosphere on the planet and over time.

"This mission complements other missions," said Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences of the UAE. “In previous (Mars) missions, their orbits are usually locked at a specific time, so that they capture an understanding of the lower Martian atmosphere at a specific time during the mission. Other missions also deal with atmospheric escape.

This artist concept shows NASA's MAVEN spaceship and the link of Mars. Goddard Space Flight Center from NASA

“This mission gives us a thorough understanding of the Martian atmosphere during the day so that all regions of Mars are covered at all times. And that is a comprehensive understanding that closes the gaps in change over time and at different seasons throughout a year. "

The mission will also study atmospheric loss, the process by which gases in the atmosphere are lost into space. It will study the movement of hydrogen and oxygen into space and will enable this atmospheric loss to be correlated with data on weather activity in the lower atmosphere. This will close gaps in knowledge about the Martian atmosphere, said Al Amiri, adding to other research done by projects like NASA's MAVEN.

What happens on the starting day?

The Hope spaceship is launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture in southwestern Japan with a Mitsubishi MH-IIA rocket.

When it lifts off Earth, the launcher points away from Mars. This is due to the planetary protection requirements, which say that unintended hardware cannot be sent to another planet, as this could potentially contaminate the area.

The problem is that both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle will continue on the same course in the zero gravity environment of space. To take the spaceship, but not the launch vehicle, to Mars, the launch points away from the planet. After separating the two, the spacecraft and its engines make adjustments until it points in the right direction to Mars.

Artist's impression of the Hope spaceship in orbit around MarsArtist's impression of the Hope spaceship in orbit around Mars. Government of Dubai Media Office

About an hour after launch, the spacecraft will be separated from the launch vehicle, and about six to eight minutes after the separation, the spacecraft will deploy its solar panels. These panels must then be set so that they face the sun and can collect electricity.

Approximately 30 minutes after the separation, ground control can contact the spacecraft for the first time via an antenna in Madrid that is part of the Deep Space Network communication system. The Operations Center in Dubai can then control the spaceship remotely.

From that point on, the controllers will use Hope's reaction control engines to stabilize the vehicle and it will be on its way to the red planet.

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