UAE joins elite space race nations as Mars probe makes first contact

Hope began its 200-day journey to the Red Planet early on Monday, with the eyes of the world on the tiny spacecraft

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The UAE joined an elite club of space nations on Monday when it sent a homegrown probe into outer orbit on a heading for Mars.

Hope was blasted out of Earth's atmosphere on a Japanese H-IIA rocket before that was jettisoned and the probe began a 200-day solo journey.

The nerves of hundreds of officials and engineers, and many millions watching across the Emirates, were calmed when the probe began transmitting its first signals home to Dubai on Nasa's deep-space network.

"We watched the successful launch of the Hope probe to Mars with pride and joy, as we embark on a new chapter in space, led by our exceptional youth," Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said on Monday.

"Congratulations to the UAE for this historic achievement."

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said the probe was on its way to the Red Planet as planned.

"We have started the 493-million km journey to the Red Planet. May God facilitate our journey," he said.

In the next seven months, Hope will travel at speeds of up to 120,000kph on its incredible 495 million kilometre-journey to Mars.

Every single man and woman that was part of this programme is going to have great contribution to science, engineering and technology in the future

Once there, it will use instruments to study the Red Planet's unique weather system, which remains one of its many mysteries.

To get to this point, the mission cost Dh735 million – a shoestring budget in space terms – taking a mere six years between conception and blast-off.

UAE leaders said it would show young people throughout the Arab world what is possible with education, vision and determination.

"It is the UAE’s gift to the world and proves the capabilities of the Emirati and the Arab world to fulfil great achievements," said Hussain Al Hammadi, Minister of Education, shortly before the launch.

"Mars is a station and, God willing, the next step will be even better."

Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Digital Economy, AI and Remote Working Systems, told The National the Mars mission was just the start of the country's space ambitions.

"This is a huge undertaking. As you know there are three countries that are aiming for Mars this year – the US, China and the UAE," Mr Al Olama said from Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, shortly before blast-off.

"Being among these great giants in the space industry, being a newcomer and an underdog, really shows a lot.

"It also shows the ambitions of the UAE are on par or might even exceed some of the countries that have a legacy in the space sector."He said the Emirati engineers and technicians who worked to deliver the project had a bright future ahead of them."Every single man and woman that was part of this programme, we are sure, is going to have great contribution to science, engineering and technology in the future," Mr Al Olama said.

People react as they watch a big screen displaying the launch of the Hope Probe from Tanegashima Island in Japan, at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Emirati journalists at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai cheer as the Hope probe is blasted into orbit just before 2am on Monday, July 20. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

The Mars mission, which followed last year's eight-day journey by Emirati astronaut Maj Hazza Al Mansouri to the International Space Station, will also fulfil an early ambition of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father.

In 1976, he welcomed Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt to Abu Dhabi and expressed a desire that the Emirates could one day find its place in space.

"On this day, we are living through a historic moment in the Arab world and a dream that belonged to the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed," said Abdulla bin Touq, Minister of Economy.

"Today we witness the capabilities of our young people to realise their achievements and we congratulate everyone over this Arab achievement, which will open new horizons in space economy, develop our capabilities and elevate our people and the people of the region."

To reach this point is a huge achievement.

More than half of all Mars missions have failed and Hope faces a challenging journey, with many hazards along the way, including high levels of radiation.

About two hours after blast-off, Hope's first instruction was to turn on its heaters to ensure its fuel does not freeze. Temperatures can reach as low as minus 270°C.

Two solar panels that generate enough power to run 20 laptops keep the probe's onboard electricity running. It also has a separate fuel tank.

Half of this fuel is reserved to power thrusters that will slow it from 120,000kph to 18,000kph to enter Martian orbit next year.

The other half will keep it in orbit for a full Martian year – 687 days.

Hope aims to study the climate of Mars and will send back one terabyte of data over two years, which will be shared, free of charge, with more than 200 research centres around the world.

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