UAE Mars Mission team fully prepared for further delays to Hope probe blast-off

A provisional second launch is planned for the early hours of Friday, but will depend on the weather in southern Japan

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The UAE Mars Mission could face further delays if bad weather continues to sweep across Japan’s Tanegashima Island, a senior project official said.

The launch of the Hope probe, which was scheduled for the early hours of Wednesday, was postponed on Tuesday as storm clouds loomed and rain was forecast.

Another attempt will be made on Friday, July 17, at 12.43am UAE time, if mission engineers and launch service provider Mitsubishi Heavy Industries give the go-ahead.

“Is there a chance of further delay? There is always a chance because of the weather,” said project manager Omran Al Sharaf, during a virtual briefing.

We didn't want to take the risk and lose the work we've done in the past six years

"But we have a launch window that’s three weeks-long – we are targeting to launch within then.

“When it comes to Friday, it’s very difficult to tell you. We had our daily meeting and everything seemed fine for our launch on July 15. Then, this morning in our meeting it didn’t seem like a good idea. It totally changed compared to yesterday."

The weather worsened almost immediately after the crew was given the go-ahead, leading to the planned launch being put off for two days.

Atmospheric conditions in the rocket’s flight path must remain stable for 24 hours for the launch to take place.

“We didn’t want to take the risk and lose the work we’ve done in the past six years because of launching at an unsuitable time,” Mr Al Sharaf said of the mission, which cost Dh735 million.

Emirates Mars Mission media update

Emirates Mars Mission media update

Narrow launch window

From early July, Japan's Kagoshima prefecture has experienced record rainfall, with lives lost, homes destroyed and areas evacuated.

Tanegashima Island, located south of Kagoshima, has had heavy rain and cloudy skies for weeks.

The mission has until August 3 to launch the probe, or else it will be delayed until 2022 – when Mars and Earth align next. When the planets are not aligned, the distance is too far to travel.

Mr Al Sharaf said the team was working towards the earliest launch date possible.

“We are preparing our resources to take that opportunity,” he said.

Preparing for further delays

Mr Al Sharaf said they have “different scenarios” in place in the case of further delays.

The team will continue to hold daily meetings about the weather. The engineers will also maintain the clean environment around the spacecraft – which is mounted on top of the H-IIA rocket – to ensure its safety, as well as monitoring its health and keeping the craft’s batteries charged.

They will also be calculating the new changes that will be made to the launch sequence once a delay takes place.

“This include reassessing the separation time [of the spacecraft from the rocket], the deployment of the solar panels and the first contact [between Hope and mission control],” Mr Al Sharaf said.

The Hope probe is to study the atmosphere of the Red Planet, delivering data which will be crucial to future efforts to launch human missions to Mars.

Why does the weather affect a rocket launch?

Mr Al Sharaf said the amount of precipitation, cloud density and winds is taken into consideration when sending a rocket into space.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has a set of criteria that needs to be met before lift-off, as does the Emirates Mars Mission, to prevent damage to the probe.

“It’s not just about the rain, it’s also about the wind and the cloud density. So, if the cloud density is too high, then there are some things that could affect the rocket,” Mr Al Sharaf said.

In this image obtained from NASA, a crane stands at the ready to hoist the payload nose cone containing NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onto the top of an Atlas V launch vehicle at the Vertical Integration Facility of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 7, 2020. NASA's most advanced Mars rover, Perseverance, launches from Earth on July 30, on a mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life on what was once a river delta three-and-a-half billion years ago. The interplanetary voyage will last six months. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NASA / Kim SHIFLETT" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Nasa's Perseverance rover on the Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral. AFP / Nasa

“It will pass different areas of the atmospheres and unstable weather conditions are present, from storms to heavy rainfall. Not only could this affect the rocket but it also endangers the probe inside the fairing [nose cone].”

Changeable weather on the island have caused delays in the past.

Other Mars missions

Launch scrubs because of weather are common and are made to ensure the safety of the rocket and spacecraft. In 2018, a satellite launch from the island was delayed for the same reason.

Nasa’s Mars Perseverance rover, which is also due to blast-off this month from Cape Canaveral, Florida was pushed back from July 17 to July 22 and later to July 30 due to technical issues.

The team announced the possibility of postponing the mission until autumn 2022 if it did not receive the go-ahead before the launch window closes mid-August.

The SpaceX launch to carry the first commercial crew to space earlier this year was cancelled 17 minutes before lift-off due to bad weather at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

The ExoMars mission by the European Space Agency and Russian space agency Roscosmos was postponed until 2022 due to technical issues.