United Arab Emirates begins historic first interplanetary mission

by Chris Gebhardt & Tyler Gray

The United Arab Emirates and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre have begun their first interplanetary voyage: the Emirates Mars Mission.

The probe, called Al Amal (which translates to “Hope” from Arabic), launched on a Japanese H-IIA rocket at 17:58:14 EDT (21:58:14 UTC) from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan to begin a seven-month voyage to Mars.

Al Amal: The first Arab nation mission to another planet

Announced in July 2014, the Emirates Mars Mission began with the goal of placing an Emirati probe in orbit of Mars by 2021.

The Emirates, in cooperation with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan, will seek to make good on that promise with launch of the mission on Sunday.

In announcing the mission in 2014, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, stated, “The mission will send three important messages.  The first is for the world: that Arab civilization once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge and will play that role again.”

“The second is to our Arab brethren: that nothing is impossible and that we can compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge.  The third is for those who strive to reach the highest of peaks: set no limits to your ambitions and you can even reach space.”

The mission patch. (Credit: Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre)

Speaking further about the mission at its announcement, Saeed Gergawi, a member of the strategic planning team at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, said: “It is a historic event in the development of the UAE and the region.  It is the first scientific research project to explore and excavate Mars and take us as Arabs and Muslims to this new era of science.”

To reinforce the main objectives of the mission, the probe itself was named Al Amal.  In choosing the name, Sheikh Mohammed said, “It sends a message of optimism to millions of young Arabs.”

Information collected by Al Amal will be made freely available to over 200 institutions around the world.

A successful launch results in the mission arriving in orbit of Mars in February 2021, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates next year. 

The mission is the first of three major flights to Mars scheduled to depart Earth in the current month-long, once-every-26-months interplanetary launch window.

China is set to follow the Emirates with the launch of the Tianwen-1 three-part Mars orbiter, lander, and rover mission on Thursday, 23 July at 00:00 EDT (04:00 UTC)... itself to be followed by the Perseverance rover from NASA No Earlier Than Thursday, 30 July at 07:50 EDT (11:50 UTC).

The Al Amal probe for the Emirates Mars Mission was built and will be operated by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in cooperation with the University of Colorado-Boulder, Arizona State University, and the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

A flight of international cooperation, the mission has three main objectives, to:

  1. understand the climate dynamics and the global weather map of Mars through characterizing the planet’s lower atmosphere,
  2. explain how weather changes the escape of hydrogen and oxygen through correlating the lower atmosphere conditions with the upper atmosphere,
  3. understand the structure and variability of hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere, as well as identifying why Mars is losing them to space.

With this set of three objectives, the Emirates Mars Mission will be the first to form a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere — including an improved understanding of how circulation and weather in Mars’ lower and middle atmosphere contribute to the escape of atmospheric particles to space.

In this regard, Al Amal will be “the first true weather satellite” at Mars, according to the mission’s project managers and leaders.

The Al Amal spacecraft was built by 150 Emirati engineers and 200 partnering U.S. engineers and scientists, with the majority of construction having taken place at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colorado.

Academic partners from Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley also collaborated in the development of the orbiter.

Al Amal undergoing checkouts prior to launch. (Credit: Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre)

The spacecraft itself has a cubical main structure, which is constructed out of aluminum and features a composite face-sheet.  Al Amal stands at 2.9 meters (9.5 feet) tall and has a width of 2.37 meters (7.8 feet), and will weigh in at approximately 1,350 kilograms (2,976 pounds) when fully fueled.

Two large solar panels, which are able to supply up to 600 watts of electrical power once unfolded, will act as the main source of power generation for the probe when in space and in orbit of Mars. 

Communications with ground stations on Earth will be enabled via a 1.85-meter (6-foot) high-gain radio wave antenna, with smaller low-gain radio antennas present in the main structure of the spacecraft.  These antennas can provide up to 1.6 megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth at Mars opposition, or the period when Mars is closest to Earth in their orbits around the Sun.

Al Amal is also outfitted with six 120-Newton thrusters and eight 5-Newton reaction control system (RCS) thrusters, both of which will be supplied with hydrazine monopropellant for in-space maneuvers.  The six 120N engines will be primarily used for velocity management while the eight 5N RCS thrusters will fire to perform fine-tuned maneuvers. 

Star trackers and an onboard reaction wheel system will also be used to reorient the spacecraft while in deep space or in Martian orbit, thereby assisting in pointing the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna towards Earth.

To achieve the primary scientific goals of the Emirates Mars Mission, the Al Amal orbiter features three major scientific instruments developed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre and partnering universities.

The first of these experiments is the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer, or EMIRS, which was developed by Arizona State University.  EMIRS consists of an interferometric thermal infrared spectrometer that will serve to examine and characterize the distribution of ice, water vapor, and dust in the lower Martian atmosphere, as well as observe temperature patterns.

The instrument primarily features a rotating mirror and a spatial resolution of 300 kilometers (186.4 miles), and is capable of making up to 60 scans of the Martian surface per week.

The second major instrument is the Emirates eXploration Imager, or EXI, which consists of a multi-band camera that is capable of taking high-resolution images of Mars’ surface.  Built by engineers at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, EXI will help measure the properties of ice, water, aerosols dust, and ozone in the Martian atmosphere via a selector wheel-based mechanism with six discrete bandpass filters for spectral imaging (three ultraviolet and three RGB bands).

The camera itself is capable of producing images with a spatial resolution of better than 8 kilometers (5 miles), with a maximum frame-rate of 180 frames per second at full resolution.

Lastly, Al-Amal hosts a far ultraviolet spectrometer, known as the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS), which was jointly-developed by the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.  The instrument will examine emissions in the 100-170 nanometer wavelength range in order to accurately measure the rate at which gaseous hydrogen and oxygen escape from the Red Planet’s atmosphere into space. 

Al Amal nearing the end of launch on the second stage of the H-IIA rocket. (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

EMUS is capable of conducting observations using different spectral resolutions, so as to distinguish the emissions of interest from other “bright” emissions and resolve carbon monoxide emissions as well.

Upon its completion at the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, the Emirati orbiter underwent environmental testing in the United States, which began in June 2019 and concluded in December that year. 

The spacecraft was then transported to the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre’s facilities in Dubai for a final set of tests before being packaged up once again and shipped to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan for launch preparations in April 2020.

Beyond the science:

Regardless of the scientific objectives, which are the entire reason for the mission’s existence, one very different and tremendously important element of this flight cannot be overlooked: the fact that it is the first Arab nation mission to another planet.

With that brings a huge sense of hope, pride, and accomplishment for the teams that have poured their careers and livelihoods into the creation of the technology and mission that will now be conducted.

With that, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre has identified numerous “Beyond Science” objectives of the mission, including to:

  • improve the quality of life on Earth by pushing limits to make new discoveries,
  • encourage global collaboration in Mars exploration,
  • demonstrate leadership in space research,
  • build Emirati capabilities in the field of interplanetary exploration,
  • build scientific knowledge for a sustainable, knowledge-based economy,
  • inspire future Arab generations to pursue space science,
  • establish the UAE’s position as a beacon of progress in the region.

Additionally, the mission continues to solidify and exemplify the prowess of the Emirati space program, which just last year succeeded in putting its first citizen — Hazza Al Mansouri — into space when he launched on the Soyuz MS-15 mission to the International Space Station, returning just under 8 days later on Soyuz MS-12.

As the world watches the launch, and in seven months the orbit insertion, one thing that will weigh heavily on the team’s mind is the percentage chance of success for a Mars mission, which globally rests at just 48%.

With more failures than successes on the global stage, the odds are actually in nobody’s favor in terms of a successful mission to Mars because there is literally no room for error.  There is no ability to correct issues in real-time due to the 7+ minute communication delay that exists between Earth and Mars.

However, with the selection of the highly reliable H-IIA rocket from Japan, that percentage chance of a successful mission does increase.

The H-IIA made its 42nd flight to deliver Al Amal into a Mars Transfer Orbit.  The vehicle has only suffered one failure in its history, giving it a 97.5% success rating.

Furthermore, if Al Amal successfully enters orbit of Mars, the United Arab Emirates will become only the second nation in history to succeed in placing a vehicle at the Red Planet on its very first attempt.

The first such occurrence came in 2014, when India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, successfully entered orbit of the planet we aim to create a civilization on one day.

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