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Arab orbiter reaches Mars, kicking off a robot invasion

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope space probe went into orbit around Mars today after a months-long cruise, adding a new member to an exclusive international club.

Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have successfully sent spacecraft to Mars. One more nation, China, could join the club this week.

Word that the SUV-sized Hope probe successfully reached its destination after a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise was greeted with cheers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest building, lit up like a Red Planet billboard to mark the achievement.

In a celebratory statement, the UAE Space Agency’s chair, Sarah Al Amiri, compared today’s milestone to the history-making touchdown of the Soviet Mars 3 lander in 1971.

“Hope reaches Mars at a profound double anniversary: 2021 marks both the 50th anniversary of the Emirates and 50 years since the first man-made object landed on the Red Planet,” she said. “As a young nation, it is a particular point of pride that we are now in a position to make a tangible contribution to humanity’s understanding of Mars.”

There’s more to come: Two more spacecraft from Earth will be invading Mars within the next 10 days. China’s Tianwen-1 probe is scheduled to enter Martian orbit on Feb. 10, while NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land in Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.

The triple assault is no coincidence: Because of a favorable alignment of Earth and Mars that occurs only every 26 months, all three probes were launched within a couple of weeks of each other last July.

Hope had to execute the thruster firings for today’s orbital insertion autonomously, due to the 11-minute lag time in transmissions between Earth and Mars. Project director Omran Sharaf said the maneuver was “the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to pressures it has never before faced.”

“With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering,” Sharaf said.

Although the $200 million Hope mission is led by Emirati engineers, the effort involves other countries as well. The probe was built at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP, and launched on a Japanese rocket. The mission team includes 200 members from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, 150 from LASP and 100 from other partners, as well as an international science team.

Hope’s three scientific instruments will study Mars’ atmosphere in coordination with other probes such as NASA’s MAVEN orbiter. LASP’s David Brain, who’s a leading scientist for the Hope mission as well as the MAVEN mission, will provide “complete coverage of the Martian atmosphere every nine days.”

The mission’s findings should help scientists figure out the mechanisms by which Mars is losing its atmosphere, and observe the effects of topological features such as Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain on any planet in the solar system.

“The science goal is to get a global understanding of how the atmosphere works together, transport in the atmosphere, how weather above Olympus Mons influences weather completely on the other side of the planet,” Brain told me.

In the months ahead, Hope will maneuver into a highly elliptical orbit that’s suited for a variety of scientific observations, ranging in altitude between 12,400 and 26,700 miles (20,000 to 43,000 kilometers). The first set of scientific data is due to be released in September, and an initial wave of findings should be published in December. Hope’s science mission is scheduled to last at least two Earth years.

And then what? During a teleconference organized for reporters in advance of today’s Mars orbital insertion, Al Amiri stressed that Hope “is not a one-off program” for the United Arab Emirates.

“We’ve had a taste of planetary exploration, and I think we will continue delving in for more,” she said.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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