A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates was set to swing into orbit around Mars in the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission Tuesday, expected to be followed by two more robotic explorers scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet this month.
The orbiter — called Amal, which is Arabic for hope — travelled 480 million kilometres in nearly seven months to get to Mars. The goal is to map the planet’s atmosphere throughout each season.
Today, we are proud of our achievement in increasing the UAE’s contribution to the Global Science Community, developing the UAE’s scientific capabilities and developing the science & technology sector in our nation. <a href=”https://t.co/cfb6w7Uciy”>pic.twitter.com/cfb6w7Uciy</a>
A combination orbiter and lander from China is close behind, scheduled to reach Mars on Wednesday. It will circle the planet until the rover separates and attempts to land on the surface in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harboured microscopic life.
About 60 per cent of all Mars missions have ended in failure — crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short — in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere.
If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times since its first landing almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.
First for United Arab Emirates
This is the United Arab Emirates’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, making the flight a matter of intense national pride.
For days, landmarks across the U.A.E., including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, glowed red to mark Amal’s anticipated arrival. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, casting even more attention on Amal.
The celestial weather station aimed for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometres by 44,000 kilometres). It was set to join six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.
Amal was expected to perform an intricate, high-stakes series of turns and engine firings to manoeuvre into orbit and achieve what has eluded so many before.
“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the U.A.E.’s space agency.
A success would be a tremendous boost to the U.AE.’s space ambitions. The country’s first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians. That’s 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.
Engineers, scientists worked with U.S. researchers
In developing Amal, the Emirates chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.
The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colo., before being sent to Japan for launch last July.
All three spacecraft en route to the Red Planet lifted off within days of one another, taking advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars — thus their close arrival times.
The car-size Amal cost $200 million US to build and launch. That excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated — and expensive — because of their rovers. NASA’s Perseverance mission totals $3 billion US.
The U.A.E., a federation of seven sheikdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country’s scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.
“This mission was never about just reaching Mars,” said Omran Sharaf, Amal’s project manager. “Mars is just a means for a much bigger objective.”