UAE Mars Mission: inside the Dubai control centre tracking the Hope probe
'The National' gains exclusive access to watch Emirati engineers communicate with the probe in deep space
It has been a week since the UAE’s Hope spacecraft began its journey to Mars and, in that time, it has travelled 2.47 million kilometres.
The carrier rocket lifted off at 1.58am on July 20, and the ground control centre at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre became a hive of activity.
A team of more than 15 Emiratis is stationed in the engineering operations room and mission operation centre in Dubai, tracking the movement of and communicating with the spacecraft.
The National was given a tour of the site yesterday and learnt how the team ensures Hope is on course for the Red Planet on its seven-month journey.
“Right now, the spacecraft’s distance from Mars is 56,924,547 kilometres,” said Zakareyya Al Shamsi, the deputy manager of mission operations.
“Everything is going very smoothly so far, and we are very impressed with the progress. Each time we receive telemetry from the spacecraft, we feel really happy.”
The Arab world’s first mission to Mars, Hope will study the Red Planet’s weather and send data to Earth.
The mission is in its early operation phase, which means ground control is making sure the probe is on track for Mars.
US space agency Nasa’s Deep Space Network is making the communication possible through antennae at Goldstone in California, Madrid in Spain, and Canberra, Australia. This helps maintain 24-hour coverage as the Earth rotates.
Mohammad Al Balooshi, the flight controller, works the 12-hour-long prime shift and is in constant touch with the Deep Space Network staff.
“They receive the telemetry first and send it over to us,” he said. “If there is any problem, we can ask them to put us in emergency contact with the spacecraft.
“But everything has been going very smoothly so far.”
Mr Al Balooshi directs the person who sends the commands to the probe. Plans are discussed and approved in a daily meeting.
Hamad Al Hazami, command controller, is tasked with sending commands to the spacecraft. He adjusts its trajectory and positioning. One wrong move and Hope could go off track.
“In case human errors occur, we have contingency plans in place,” said Mr Al Hazami.
Once the team receives telemetry from the probe – which mainly shows the craft’s location and the status of its subsystems – commands to adjust trajectory can be sent.
The team also ensures that the spacecraft’s two solar panels, which supply its power, are facing the Sun.
However, this is done with caution because intense energy from the Sun can damage Hope’s subsystems and the three main scientific instruments it carries to study the atmosphere of Mars.
Monitors around ground control watch Hope, with green or red lights to indicate the spacecraft’s status.
“It’s all green, so, that’s great,” said Mr Al Shamsi.
UAE in Space
A device called a star tracker is used to plot the little craft’s position by the stars, helping Hope to its destination.
Although it is smooth sailing right now and telemetry is received within a second, the mission will move on to a more complicated stage in 13 days.
It will shift into the cruising phase, where contact with the spacecraft will take place twice a week in bursts of six or seven hours.
The team is expecting a delay in receiving the telemetry because the probe has moved farther from Earth.
The three scientific instruments – an exploration imager, ultraviolet spectrometer and an infrared spectrometer – will be tested at this stage.
“We are only carrying out small tests right now because we don’t want to put too much load on the spacecraft,” Mr Al Shamsi said.
“It has a long journey, and we will be taking things step by step. Once it reaches the cruising stage, we will start with more tests.”
Once it gets close to Mars, the probe will have to reduce its speed from 120,000kph to 14,000kph to prepare for orbit. Only India has managed to successfully put a probe into Mars orbit at the first attempt. That was in 2013. The task is extremely difficult and 50 per cent of Mars missions end in failure.
However, failures occurred decades ago, when space exploration was in its infancy and the advanced technology available for such missions today was on the drawing board. Now, Nasa has several rovers on Mars and probes orbiting it.
“Similar to the launch day, the orbit insertion is going to be a critical day,” Mr Al Shamsi said.
There will be a 20-minute delay in receiving telemetry from the probe once it reaches Mars.
The spacecraft will then move into its “science orbit”, where it will stay for two Earth years to collect data.
Updated: July 28, 2020 04:14 PM