UAE’s Hope probe: Journey to Mars nears halfway mark

First Arab mission to Mars was launched in July 2020 and should arrive in early February 2021

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UAE's Hope Probe is almost halfway to Mars since beginning its journey to the Red Planet 79 days ago.

Launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Island, the orbiter has travelled more than 215.5 million kilometres out of the total 495m km distance.

Emirati engineers are gearing up to make the third course correction manoeuvre next month, as the halfway point of the journey nears.

Live tracking is available on the Emirates Mars Mission website and it appears the probe's arrival date will be February 9 or 10.

Once it arrives, the weather satellite will stay in the planet’s science orbit for two years to study the upper and lower atmosphere. It will send back one terabyte of data, which will be openly shared with scientists and education and research institutions worldwide.

On Wednesday, The National spoke to the Emirates Mars Mission team on the mission status.

Correcting the course

Engineers at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre's ground control have carried out two course correction manoeuvres, known as trajectory correction manoeuvres (TCM), so far. The first took place on August 11 and the other on August 28.

The spacecraft makes these adjustments by firing its thrusters to re-position itself and ensure that it remains on the correct path to Mars.

There are about six to seven such manoeuvres planned, with the next one scheduled for November.

“The reason why [TCM 3] is critical is because we are almost halfway through the journey,” said Omran Sharaf, project director of the mission.

"TCM 1 was critical because it was the first one we performed after separation from the launcher. The second was also important because it's the first time we incorporated the data we received from the first TCM into our planning to see if we get even more accurate results."

Protecting the spacecraft from solar radiation

One of the risks involved during a spacecraft’s journey in outer space is solar radiation.

Although it is smooth sailing for the Hope Probe right now, the closer it gets to Mars, the more unstable the space environment gets.

“We have different layers of protection – the main one being the multilayer insulation,” said Mohsen Al Awadhi, mission systems engineer and risk manager of the mission.

"It is mainly for temperature control, but we've designed it in a way that it reduces any kind of radiation that hits the spacecraft."

There have been major strides in space exploration in 2020, including the launch of the UAE’s Hope Probe to Mars. Courtesy: Emirates Mars Mission 
There have been major strides in space exploration in 2020, including the launch of the UAE’s Hope Probe to Mars. Courtesy: Emirates Mars Mission 

The components of Hope, particularly all of its systems and instruments, were strategically designed to be protected in space.

“That’s why it's not cheap to go to space, because things are made specifically for a space environment,” said Mr Al Awadhi.

Entering Mars’ Orbit

The most challenging part of the mission is the Mars orbit insertion (MOI).

More than 50 per cent of Mars missions fail and only India has managed to enter the planet's orbit in a first attempt.

Due to the time delay and communication outage during the insertion, Hope will carry out an automated entry. It will do a 30-minute fuel burn using its thrusters and reduce its speed from 121,000 kilometres per hour to 18,000kph.

If the probe goes too fast, it will crash on Mars or miss it entirely.

Mr Sharaf said he is confident in his team's abilities but also feels nervous as the orbit insertion nears.

"Yes, I am very nervous about it," he said. "At the end of the day, no matter how much you do, a very small mistake happens or if something goes slightly off, you lose the whole mission.

"Orbit insertion is a very risky operation. A lot of the countries couldn't make it in their first attempt. We are aware of that and we're trying to mitigate the risks."

He said the mission was working to assess the risks early on and reduce them before they turn into anomalies.

Hope’s systems were turned on and tested. The spacecraft is performing well but its systems will be measured again once it gets closer to Mars to see how they react to that space environment.

Once it enters the Martian atmosphere, the next step will be the science orbit insertion – where it will stay for the remainder of the mission.