The UAE mission to Mars is reaching a milestone, with less than 50 days remaining until the Hope probe arrives.
Next month, Emirati engineers at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre’s ground control will begin preparations for orbit insertion, the most challenging part of the journey.
The Hope spacecraft, which will study Mars' upper and lower atmospheres, is scheduled to arrive at the planet on February 9 at 7.42pm, Gulf Standard Time.
"We are getting closer to the space and we are concluding any activities we have by January, because after that, we have to fully prepare for the Mars orbit insertion phase, which is a very critical phase," Hessa Al Matroushi, science data and analysis lead for the mission, told The National.
The mission was launched on July 20 from Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. If successful, the UAE will become the first Arab nation and only fifth country to reach Mars.
The spacecraft will use three instruments – an exploration imager, ultraviolet spectrometer and an infrared spectrometer – to carry out its scientific tasks.
For the past few months, the mission has been in cruise phase. The probe has covered more than 388,200,000 kilometres so far, and only about 92.2 million kilometres remain.
“During the cruise phase, we are checking the instruments we have on board the Hope probe, and we’re checking the spacecraft’s health and how it operates,” Ms Matroushi said.
The team began gathering scientific data earlier than expected.
A navigational camera on the probe that tracks stars, helping the spacecraft to stay on its path, was used to study interplanetary dust.
Emirati scientists are already analysing the data gathered. The findings will be combined with data being collected by European Space Agency’s BepiColombo spacecraft, which is en route to Mercury.
Scientists and astronomers believe interplanetary dust played an important role in the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
The new data will help them study dust density and its distribution throughout the solar system.
But Hope's main scientific mission is to study why gases, specifically hydrogen and oxygen, are leaking from the Mars atmosphere.
Emirati scientists with the mission will be using the ultraviolet spectrometer to take a photo of Mars as it gets closer to orbit, allowing them to analyse gases around it.
The early measurements will help them prepare for more thorough research once it reaches the science orbit, when it will spend two years gathering extensive data.
“This will give us more information about hydrogen and oxygen distributions, especially around Mars,” Ms Al Matroushi said.
“We’re cruising Mars from afar, but we would still be able to see the hydrogen and oxygen around it. That would be very beneficial for us, because it will enable us to characterise the instrument better, making observations earlier than needed.
“By doing that we are trying to understand how our instrumentation works, and to verify our data pipeline processing that we are preparing.”
This means they will have the required algorithms in place to more accurately and efficiently process the data that comes later from the science orbit.
All the data gathered by UAE Mars mission will be available online free of charge. A dedicated website, the Science Data Centre of the Emirates Mars Mission, has been set up and will go live in due course.