UAE Hope probe: countdown on as Mars mission enters most complex phase

Spacecraft to slow itself from 100,000kph to 18,000kph as it approaches the Red Planet

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In nine days, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre's mission control room will be packed with anxious engineers, watching a years-long mission reach its target destination in outer space.

Their eyes will be glued to the giant monitoring screens that span the walls of the huge room to track, guide and communicate with the Hope probe as it approaches Mars.

At the time of arrival, however, there will be nothing they can do to ensure orbit insertion goes as planned.

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, any command sent to the spacecraft or incoming telemetry will be delayed by 11 minutes.

Contact will be temporarily lost as Hope travels behind Mars - an event known as an occultation - creating a tense blackout period when the probe will attempt to be captured into the orbit on February 9.

Engineers rely solely on programmed manoeuvres set into the orbiter to accomplish this daring feat.

What happens when the Hope probe reaches Mars?

What happens when the Hope probe reaches Mars?

More than 50 per cent of Mars missions fail. Only India has successfully entered the Martian orbit on a maiden flight.

With the countdown under way, The National visited mission control to see how the team is preparing for this landmark event.

'It's a little unnerving'

Omar Abdelrahman Hussain, mission design and navigation lead, said the Mars orbit insertion is equally challenging as the rocket launch stage.

“We’re going to slow down the spacecraft from more than 100,000 kilometres per hour down to 18,000kph,” he said.

“Another problem is that we have an 11-minute communication delay both ways, so that’s a little unnerving for us because we won’t have the time to send any commands."

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Sarwat Nasir. News. Space. Mahmood Abdulaziz AlNasser (R), Mission Operations Control Development Lead speaks with Khalid Mohammad Badri, Instrument Science engineer in mission control. Visit to MBRSC ground station for upcoming Mars orbit insertion. Dubai. Thursday, January 28th, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Engineers at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre's mission control are confident in the Hope probe's design to achieve Mars orbit insertion. Chris Whiteoak / The National

For orbit insertion, the spacecraft will perform an autonomous action that involves firing its six thrusters for 28 minutes to de-accelerate. The riskiest part is ensuring the burn begins at the exact right time, so it reaches the correct target in orbit.

The team will not be able to send any live commands, but they can monitor the performance of the burn.

“We do have all of the contingencies built into the spacecraft so we don’t have to interact with it during this very critical period,” Mr Hussain said.

“Then, we’ll go into an occultation and that will be the first time we won’t have contact with the spacecraft for a few minutes. The success of this phase will be a big reason for the mission’s success.”

Engineers are expecting the occultation to last about 15 minutes. During some previous Nasa missions, it has lasted up to 30 minutes.

Once the delayed telemetry is restored, the team will have a clearer idea of the spacecraft's health and if it successfully entered Mars' orbit.

What could go wrong?

As in all space missions, there are also many risks involved with this one. Hope probe has only one shot of getting it right.

However, the team feels confident the spacecraft’s programming and excellent performance so far is will mean a successful orbit entry.

Hamad Alhazami, command controller, said: “I have full faith in my colleagues, their design, work and our systems. We’ve practised this many times and it feels like another rehearsal – that’s how hard we’ve worked on this project.”

Mission to Mars. The National
Mission to Mars. The National

Ayesha Al Sharafi, spacecraft propulsion subsystem lead, said: “I am nervous. This is the longest period of time we will be using the propulsion, but I also have a lot of confidence on how well the mission has progressed so far.”

The probe’s thrusters have been tested and used before and after its launch into space, including when course correction manoeuvres were needed.

All commands were first sent to a model satellite on ground, called a flatsat, to measure how it will react.

If any of the six thrusters fail during orbit entry, the spacecraft is programmed to automatically adjust to correct its trajectory.

What happens after orbit entry?

Nasa’s Deep Space Network radio antenna in Madrid, Spain, will be the first to know if orbit insertion was successful.

After spending 40 hours in the capture orbit, the spacecraft will be transferred into the science orbit, where it will spend two years studying the planet’s upper and lower atmosphere.

Khalid Badri, instrument science engineer, said the scientific instruments – an infrared spectrometer, exploration imager and ultraviolet spectrometer – will be tested.

“After the completion of orbit insertion, we will perform checks to make sure the detectors and instruments are healthy to do the observations when entering Mars,” he said.

Hope probe's launch into space - in pictures