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Cosmic Space

Hope rises: Emirates’ first Mars probe lifts off from Japan

The United Arab Emirates’ first-ever mission to Mars got off to a fiery start today with the launch of the Hope orbiter from Japan.

A two-stage Mitsubishi H-2A rocket sent the car-sized probe into space from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 2:58 p.m. PT today (6:58 a.m. local time July 20). Two previous launch attempts had to be called off due to unacceptable weather.

An Emirati team based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai is in charge of the $200 million mission. The probe itself was built in the U.S. with help from research institutions including Berkeley, Arizona State University and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP.

Learning the tools of the space exploration trade is one of the Hope mission’s on-the-ground objectives. The United Arab Emirates has had several satellites launched into Earth orbit, but this is the nation’s first interplanetary probe.

“Collaboration and knowledge transfer have been key to the development of the Emirates Mars Mission,” project director Omran Sharaf said in a pre-launch news release.

About an hour after launch, the probe was deployed from the H-2A’s second stage and sent out of Earth orbit to start the seven-month, 306 million-mile cruise to Mars. Emirati mission controllers will track Hope’s progress with an assist from NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Hope’s three instruments — a high-resolution imager, an infrared spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer — are aimed at providing data about Mars’ atmosphere on a par with what Earth-observing weather satellites provide.

That should help flesh out the global picture of Martian weather provided by other nations’ orbiters, including NASA’s MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

One of the key scientific questions has to do with how hydrogen and oxygen are escaping from the upper atmosphere — a phenomenon that, over the course of billions of years, is thought to have turned Mars from a hospitable home for life to the cold, dry planet it is today.

“Hope will capture the ebbs and flows of weather on Mars to a degree that wasn’t possible before,” said LASP’s director, Daniel Baker. “It’s a showcase for how space exploration has become an increasingly international endeavor.”

The primary phase of the mission is meant to last a full Martian year, or a little less than two Earth years, but if all goes well that mission is likely to be extended.

Hope was the first of three Mars probes scheduled for launch during this summer’s rapid-transit opportunity. (Such opportunities come only every 26 months.)

China is expected to launch its Tianwen-1 spacecraft — including an orbiter, a lander and a rover — sometime in the next week or so. And NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is due for liftoff from its Florida launch pad no earlier than July 30.

Less than an hour before launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the UAE’s space program was a “shining example” of international space cooperation — and that last year’s flight of the Emirates’ first astronaut gave NASA “another partner” in human spaceflight during the ramp-up to Artemis moon missions.

Bridenstine said both the Hope orbiter and the Perseverance rover were aptly named.

“All of us believe that this is critical for our nation: to inspire the next generation, to provide hope and demonstrate perseverance,” he said. “The naming of these two robots, if you will, is absolutely perfect. … This is a very serious mission that is going to give us a lot of data and information on how we might one day, together even, explore Mars with humans.”

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Cosmic Space

It’s the summer of Mars: Check your Red Planet IQ

It’s been more than two years since the most recent launch to Mars, but traffic to the Red Planet is due to pick up dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

The United Arab Emirates could start things off as soon as Sunday (July 19) with the launch of its first-ever interplanetary probe, the Hope orbiter. Liftoff from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center is set for as early as 5:58 p.m. ET (1:58 a.m. UAE time July 20), with a Japanese H-2A rocket providing the ride.

The UAE is an up-and-comer in the space business, as evidenced by last year’s first space mission by an Emirati astronaut. This Mars mission celebrates the Emirates’ 50th anniversary as a nation, and is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in collaboration with a variety of U.S. research institutions.

The car-sized Hope orbiter is designed to provide a weather-satellite style view of the Martian atmosphere over the course of its two-year-long primary mission. Hope’s launch has been delayed a couple of times due to unfavorable weather in Japan, but once liftoff takes place, it should be clear sailing to orbital insertion at Mars next February.

China is next up with its Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover. The spacecraft should be sent on its way from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site atop a Long March 5 rocket sometime next week.

Assuming all goes as advertised, Tianwen-1’s landing platform will touch down on a Martian plain known as Utopia Planitia next February. The rover will roll off the platform, take pictures, analyze rock samples and use a radar instrument to hunt for pockets of subsurface water.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will be snapping high-resolution pictures from above and serving as a communications relay. Tianwen (which means “Questioning the Heavens”) is China’s first Mars mission and could lay the groundwork for a sample return mission in the late 2020s.

NASA is also preparing for a sample return mission. On July 30, it’s due to launch the Mars Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Perseverance takes advantage of the same basic chassis design and plutonium-powered batteries used for the Curiosity rover, which is still in operation eight years after landing on Mars. But its instruments are optimized to look for the chemical signs of ancient microbial life.

After the one-ton, SUV-sized rover makes its February touchdown in Jezero Crater, one of its primary tasks will be to collect promising samples of Martian rock and soil for eventual return to Earth. Perseverance is also packing a mini-helicopter called Ingenuity, which could become the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet.

There’s a reason why all these spacecraft are due for takeoff this summer, heading for a landing next February. Because of the orbital relationship between Earth and Mars, the optimal opportunity for a trip to the Red Planet comes every 26 months.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander took advantage of the 2018 opportunity, and now it’s time once again for Mars-bound missions to lift off — or wait for the next turn in 2022.

There’ll be a lot more on the Red Planet menu in the next few weeks, and this Mars IQ test should serve as an appetizer. Are you a space cadet or a Mars commander? If you’ve read this story, you should get at least the first quiz question right…