UAE Mars Mission: Emirati engineers expect Japan’s rain season to end in time for launch

Tanegashima Island – the launch site of the Hope probe – has seen rain and cloudy weather over the past two weeks

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Emirati engineers are confident that Japan's rainy season will end in time for the launch of UAE’s Mars spacecraft, which is now eight days away.

A record amount of rain, flooding and landslides hit the Kagoshima prefecture, which includes the island city of Tanegashima, last week.

Tanegashima Island, the launch site of the probe, is typically humid but has recently seen much rain, high winds and cloudy weather.

Rocket launches are often postponed during unstable weather, as high winds, lightning or rainfall can interfere with the launch.

“We expect the rainy season to be ending in a few days,” Suhail Al Dhafri, deputy project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission, said during a virtual media briefing on Monday.

Mr Dhafri said several weather checks will be carried out days leading up to the launch and an hourly check on the big day, which will determine the status of the lift off.

The rainy season typically lasts from May to mid-July on Tanegashima Island.

The eight Emirati engineers on ground at the launch site in Tanegashima Island. Courtesy: Screenshot of media briefing on July 6
The eight Emirati engineers on ground at the launch site in Tanegashima Island. Courtesy: Screenshot of media briefing on July 6

The launch is planned for July 15, 12.51am (UAE time) and falls within a launch window that lasts until August 3. If missed, another opportunity will not be available for two years, as that is when Earth and Mars will next be aligned.

Several rocket launches have been postponed from Tanegashima Island in the past because of poor weather. The most recent one was in September 2018, when a cargo mission to the International Space Station was delayed because of a typhoon.

Besides weather, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge for several months, creating transportation problems for the team.

The initial plan was to send 13 engineers to the launch site, however, the number was reduced to eight due to travel restrictions. The responsibilities have been divided amongst the small team at the launch site. The remaining engineers will stay in the UAE to work on other aspects of the mission.

The spacecraft and the team travelled to Tanegashima Space Centre in April as a precautionary measure. The engineers were quarantined for 15 days and have been carrying out tests on the probe since being released.

There are safety measures in place to protect the team, who undergo daily health checks, from the virus.

“The island is very isolated and there’s very limited transportation here,” said Mr Al Dhafri.

“But, still, the health experts give us regular health checks.

“Coronavirus is not an obstacle for us,” he said.

The spacecraft also underwent decontamination before it was shipped to Japan. This included a ‘bake-out’, which involves exposing the craft to extreme temperatures to get rid of any unwanted materials.

Hope has been fuelled with 800 kgs of hydrogen and the next step is to mount it on to the rocket.

It will be launched on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H-IIA rocket, which has a 97.6 per cent success rate.

The UAE used this rocket in 2018 to launch its first 100 per cent Emirati-built satellite, KhalifaSat.