Hope probe ‘only the beginning’ of UAE's journey into deep space

Omran Sharaf, team leader of the Mars mission, tells 'The National' that Hope could be a template for future interplanetary missions

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The mission to Mars is "just the beginning" of the UAE's journey into deep space, a leading official at the country's space agency said.

Omran Sharaf, director of the Emirates Mars Mission, said Hope probe’s design could be repurposed for other interplanetary missions.

Emirati engineers are now equipped with the experience and skills to build spacecraft to explore other parts of space, he said.

Mr Sharaf spoke to The National a week after the UAE made history by becoming the fifth space agency to reach the Red Planet.

We do have the skills and the knowledge to sit at the same table with other engineers globally

“This platform is definitely the foundation for UAE’s future outer space exploration missions that will be developed,” he said.

“The main core of the spacecraft, system architecture, design and knowledge are some things that can definitely be re-used. Hopefully, there will be some innovation added to it, but, basically, this is the foundation.”

Hope was built by Emirati engineers, with the help of three leading American universities, for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

It entered Mars' orbit on February 9 and will begin its science mission of studying the planet’s atmospheric conditions by April.

Engineers have designed and built Earth-observation satellites before, but working on Hope opened new doors for them.

Omran Sharaf, director of UAE Mars Mission, at a rress conference held after UAE Hope Probe reached Mars on Wednesday. 

Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National

The six-year-long journey of developing this mission helped Emiratis at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre learn the complexities involved with sending a spacecraft into deep space.

This included building scientific instruments and a propulsion system – a vital part of a spacecraft that enables it to enter a planet’s orbit and carry out manoeuvres in deep space using thrusters.

Hope's six thrusters fired for 27 minutes to help it decelerate from a speed of 120,000 kilometres per hour to 18,000 kph, allowing it be captured by Mars’ gravity.

Experienced engineers

Ayesha Al Sharafi is the lead engineer of Hope probe’s propulsion system, which played such a crucial part in ensuring the mission was a success.

“The knowledge was the biggest gain out of this project, especially when it comes to the propulsion system, which was not really a focus in the UAE’s space sector before,” she said.

“We were mostly focused on Earth observation missions, which really did not need high forces of thrust, but when we are given an interplanetary mission, propulsion becomes very critical.

“I think one of the most important factors is that today you have a propulsion engineer in the UAE. We do have the skills and the knowledge to sit at the same table with other engineers globally and discuss these systems.”

During Hope’s seven-month journey to Mars and with different phases of the mission approaching, engineers are also learning to operate and ensure the probe's health in space.

Mohsen Al Awadhi, the systems engineer, is responsible for carrying out the actions needed from Hope during each phase, for example what needs to be turned on, calibrated and putting a plan together to help scientists gather findings.

“It’s a stressful moment because you want to prove that what you have designed will actually will work for future missions,” he said.

“It has definitely opened new doors for us, but also for the coming generation who will be able to be a part of this.”

Improving quality

The Mars weather satellite has already taken an extraordinary image of the planet, which captured ice caps and volcanoes, by using one of its three scientific instruments.

The instruments aboard the spacecraft are the eXploration imager, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometre.

The Hope probe captured Olympus Mons, largest volcano in solar system, during sunrise.

“It’s an image that has scientific data because the eXploration imager is actually a scientific camera,” Mr Sharaf said.

“But, you cannot come up with scientific findings from just one image, we need multiple ones over a duration of time to compare and produce results.

“The first image is beautiful but, in future, the image quality will be significantly higher, because we'll have more set of images to calibrate and we’ll further improve the quality of the image.”

The next stages

Mr Sharaf said there are plans for future missions, which will be announced “at the right time”.

The focus currently remains on the probe capturing vital scientific data on the planet.

Hope will spend two years studying the planet’s upper and lower atmosphere and dynamic weather conditions. The mission could be extended for another two years.

Until April, engineers will be calibrating Hope’s instruments and systems, so it is ready for its science mission.