What is so special about Mars? Research teams in the UAE are finding out
February 9, 2021 has gone down in history as the day the UAE’s first interplanetary mission – and the first from the Arab world – succeeded when the Hope probe entered the Martian orbit. With a spectacular launch on July 20 from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, it took 204 days to cover the 493 million km journey to reach the orbit of Mars. For a country founded only in 1971 and with a relatively small population of 10 million, it is an extraordinary achievement.
The UAE also became the second country in history, after India, to reach Mars on its maiden attempt. Just as the Apollo missions in the 1960s inspired a generation of young people to pursue careers in science, the Hope probe’s success has the potential to do so here in the Middle East.
It is also a symbol of how, when it comes to scientific exploration, the world is in this together; Hope was accompanied by China’s Tianwen-1, which entered the Martian orbit on February 10 and Nasa’s rover Perseverance, scheduled to land on February 18. All three missions had to overcome daunting challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which makes their successes even more significant.
The history of Mars missions is riddled with failures. The odds of success are usually 50/50. The first attempt to reach Mars was made by USSR in 1960 with the Mars 1M No 1 mission, which ended in a launch failure. The first country to succeed was the US, with a fly-by mission – Mariner 4 – in which the probe went past Mars in 1965. Nasa's Mariner 9 probe successfully entered orbit for the first time in November 1971 and a month later, the USSR’s Mars 3 was the first lander to successfully land on the planet.
Then in 1976, Nasa’s two landers, Viking 1 and 2 were the first missions to have on board instruments to search for signs of life. Over the years, Nasa has deployed several rovers to investigate the Martian surface and has accumulated a long list of accomplishments in doing so. In the 21st century, other countries successfully deployed orbiters around Mars with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express in 2003 and India’s Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission in 2014.
What is so special about Mars? At NYU Abu Dhabi’s Centre for Space Science, where I am a planetary astrophysicist, our research group is deeply interested in what the Red Planet, and the Hope probe, can teach us.
An overarching theme of our team’s research is investigating the astrophysical conditions that are responsible for carving out habitable conditions on planets in the solar system and around other stars, known as extrasolar planets or exoplanets. Using a combination of space mission data and our own calculations, we study how radiation from the Sun and other stars affects planets around them and their potential to host life. Because of its similarity and proximity to the Earth, Mars is the best place to investigate these questions.
Mars is our planetary neighbour, and was very Earthlike in the ancient past, with abundant liquid water on its surface. It plausibly could have hosted life. Over time, its atmosphere eroded and the climatic conditions became inhospitable. Most of the water evaporated and it became extremely dry and cold. We are interested in learning how Mars lost most of its atmosphere and water.
Hope will measure the distribution of hydrogen and oxygen in the Martian atmosphere, which will help us better understand the atmospheric loss mechanism. Our team is currently analysing data from Nasa’s Maven orbiter, and Hope will provide us with complementary data to study this.
What sets Hope apart from other missions is its unique orbit. With a relatively high orbit and an orbital period of 55 hours, it will be able to view the full “disc” – an entire hemisphere – of the planet at once. It will observe the entire planet every nine days, to provide a global picture of the Martian climate. By comparison, Maven and the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter probe are closer to the surface, with orbital periods of 4.5 and two hours, respectively. They are able to observe only a small patch of the planet at a time.
In the Arab world, the roots of that history go all the way back to astronomy in the medieval period
Hope will also measure water vapour, ozone and information about dust in the atmosphere. Dust storms play a key role in regulating the Martian climate and also the escape rates of gases from the atmosphere. It sheds light on the impact of extreme solar events on the escape rates, as well as the planet’s atmospheric chemistry. Data from Maven and Nasa’s Curiosity rover already allow us some understanding of how energetic solar radiation during extreme events impacts the chemistry, but Hope data will provide additional information that will enable us to understand these processes even better.
We all seem to be fascinated with the idea of humanity one day creating settlements on Mars – so much so that the UAE plans to establish a human base on the planet by 2117, known as the Mars 2117 project.
The night before Hope’s entry into the Martian orbit, residents of Dubai were treated to the sight of two moons in their night sky. Although it was only an artificial projection to promote the Hope mission, it was meant to give people a sense of what it’s like to live on a planet like Mars, which has two moons.
The interaction of extreme events on Mars is very important to understand because they pose dangers to future astronauts, like those who may one day participate in the Mars 2117 project. Our research will not only shed further light on these dangers, but also design effective mitigation strategies for future Martian settlers.
The Hope mission is planned to operate for two Martian years, or four Earth years, though it will likely continue for much longer. It will be a useful asset to Mars researchers around the world and an excellent resource for students and researchers in the region. That impact will also help to diversify our economy and inspire the youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Space is a great way to attract young people to pursue careers in these disciplines and, coupled with long-term investments in scientific research, it can transform the region into an intellectual hub of discovery and innovation with unexpected benefits.
Medical science, for example, has benefited tremendously from advancements in space science and technology, giving us better instruments for diagnosis, imaging and miniaturisation. It is not a coincidence that the first countries to develop Covid-19 vaccines are the ones with a history of investments in scientific research. They could leverage their research infrastructure for public benefit. It would not have been possible otherwise.
In the Arab world, the roots of that history go all the way back to astronomy in the medieval period. With an emerging human space flight programme underpinned by the Hope mission and the coming Emirates Lunar Mission, there are abundant opportunities for the youth in the region to get involved in space exploration and carry that history forward.
Dimitra Atri is a research scientist at the NYU Abu Dhabi's Centre for Space Science. His research is focused on Mars, extrasolar planets and astrobiology
Updated: February 12, 2021 08:11 AM