UAE’s mission to Mars on schedule for launch despite Covid-19

The Hope probe is due to take off in July from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre

The UAE’s Mars orbiter will launch this July from Japan as planned, despite the affect the coronavirus pandemic is having on the global space industry.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre told The National that the launch date has not been changed and the Hope Probe is still due to leave Earth from the Tanegashima Space Centre mid-July.

The main purpose of this mission was not to reach Mars, but to create a big disruptive change within the UAE to encourage youth to go into the sciences and engineering

China and the US also plan to launch orbiters and rovers to Mars in July. The month was chosen to take advantage of a narrow launch window - between July 14 and August 3 — when Earth and Mars align favourably for such missions.

If missed, space officials may have to wait 26 months for another launch opportunity. This would put a major dent in UAE’s plan to reach Mars by the country’s 50th anniversary in 2021.

Hope will lift off on the H-IIA rocket, a service provided by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Dan Lochmann, global marketing communications director for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, told The National he did not expect Covid-19 to affect the launch.

“For the moment we think the impact on our operations will be minimal but will continue to monitor the situation. We are working hard to prepare for this important launch.”

The affect of the virus on the space industry has been minimal compared to other industries worldwide, including education and retail, which have suffered from mass closures.

Space launches by Russia’s space agency Roscosmos are ongoing in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, with the next manned mission due on April 9. SpaceX is also carrying forward with lift-offs in the United States.

However, Roscosmos has banned media from covering the launches live to contain the Covid-19 spread.

All launches at the French Guiana Space Centre have been suspended. There are 5,423 coronavirus cases in France and death toll is at 127.

Nearly all space centres around the world have also temporarily closed space exhibits for tourists.

The Hope Probe was built by a team of 150 Emirati engineers, scientists and researchers. It was developed in the US in partnership with three universities.

The orbiter was brought to the UAE in February and is currently at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Its next destination will be Japan’s Tanegashima Island.

“The Arab world’s first interplanetary mission! The Emirates Mars Mission ‘Hope Probe’ will leave for Mars in July 2020, on a mission to find answers to the unsolved mysteries about the red planet,” Emirates Mars Mission said on Twitter on Thursday.

As of March 17, Japan has seen 824 cases and 28 deaths related to the coronavirus outbreak, with 712 confirmed cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama port.

Japan’s space agency Jaxa has taken precautionary measures to keep staff and tourists safe.

“To prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, all exhibits are closed from February 28 to March 31,” the agency's website read.

Field centres, including Tanegashima Space Centre, were temporarily closed from February 28 to March 15.

The Emirates Mars Mission was announced by UAE leaders in 2014. If successful, the UAE will become the first Arab country to reach another planet.

Hope’s objective will be to study Mars’ upper atmosphere and send back data, helping scientists understand what’s causing gases to leak from the atmosphere, what caused the planet to dry out and how to prevent the same from happening to Earth.

“The main purpose of this mission was not to reach Mars, but to create a big disruptive change within the UAE to encourage youth to go into the sciences and engineering," said Omran Sharaf, head of the mission. "Mars was a tool for a bigger objective.”

On Monday, Sultan Al Neyadi, who is part of UAE’s first astronaut corps, said: “In July 2020, the Hope probe will embark on its eight-month journey to Mars. Setting a precedent in the field of space exploration, the UAE is set to become the first Arab country to launch an interplanetary mission and the seventh country globally to send a probe to Mars.”