UAE’s mission to Mars: progress so far, as launch date nears

The Hope Probe will lift off from Japan in fewer than 30 days

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Emirati engineers are gearing up for the launch stage of UAE’s mission to Mars as most components needed for the lift-off are now in place.

The core part of the Japanese H-IIA rocket that will deliver the Hope spacecraft into space arrived at the launch site this weekend.

The lift-off is scheduled for July 15, 12.51am UAE time, from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre.

With less than 30 days until the big day, The National explores the progress that has been made so far to ensure launch readiness and what can be expected.

Major testing will continue  

The spacecraft arrived at the launch site three weeks earlier than the original plan because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Prior to its departure, the engineering team at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre put the craft through some rigorous testing to ensure it was ready for its seven-month journey to the red planet.

The three scientific instruments – exploration imager, Mars infrared spectrometer and ultraviolet spectrometer – were inspected.

The 600-watt solar panels, strong enough to power 20 laptops, were installed on the probe.

Emirates Mars Mission

This was followed by a series of tests, including environmental, thermal vacuum and acoustic tests.

Hope was placed in a thermal chamber for 10 days as part of the decontamination process, exposing it to temperatures as low as -25°C and up to 55°C to make sure it can survive extreme conditions in space.

It was then packed, placed in a container and shipped to the launch site in an 83-hour journey.

The spacecraft was then taken to the Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the Tanegashima Space Centre, where it is being looked after by more than 10 Emirati engineers.

Omran Al Sharaf, project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission, said during an online seminar on Monday that they continue to carry out certain tests to ensure the spacecraft is fit for the mission.

Some of these include testing the communication and control devices of the probe and making sure the batteries are fully charged.

The core part of the H-IIA rocket, owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has arrived at the same location.

Technical specifications of UAE's mission to Mars. Ramon Peñas / The National
Technical specifications of UAE's mission to Mars. Ramon Peñas / The National

Now the spacecraft’s fuel tank will be filled with about 700 kilograms of hydrogen fuel and will undergo leakage tests.

Once the team has ensured rocket readiness, the probe will be installed on the rocket.

Engineers will continue to carry out leakage and other tests until the launch day.

How reliable is the rocket?

Before a spacecraft starts its journey to the red planet, it first has to be successfully placed outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

And Hope is catching a ride on Japan’s H-IIA rocket so it can reach there at a launch speed of 34,082kph. The spacecraft will separate from the launcher an hour after lift-off.

The H-IIA rocket has a 97.6 per cent successful launch rate, MHI said.

It has had 41 launches since it started its operations in 2001. It suffered one failure in 2003 during its sixth launch because of a gas leak from the rocket booster that damaged the separation system.

Japan's rocket H-2A is launched, carrying aboard a green gas observing satellite "Ibuki-2"  and KhalifaSat, a UAE satellite, Tanegashima, southern Japan, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Japanese rocket carrying United Arab Emirates' first locally-made satellite has successfully lifted off from a space center in southern Japan. (Nozomi Endo/Kyodo News via AP)
UAE's KhalifaSat satellite was launched from the Tanegashima Space Centre on the same rocket on October 29, 2018. AP  

The UAE used this rocket in 2018 to launch its KhalifaSat satellite, the first entirely Emirati-made space object.

The launch was successful and the satellite is still operational.

Once it is out of Earth’s gravity, Hope will make a solo journey to Mars and will travel at a cruising distance of 493.5 million kilometres over a period of seven months.

There are several challenges that can be posed during this journey and when the spacecraft tries to insert itself into the Martian orbit.

Once the craft approaches the orbit, it will have to slow down from 121,000kph to 18,000kph.

“If we go too slowly we’ll crash on Mars. If we go too fast, we’ll miss Mars,” Mr Sharaf said.

Even though 50 per cent of missions to Mars have failed, Mr Sharaf said the “best way” to increase the likelihood of succeeding is continuous testing, debugging and fixing.

“That’s why the philosophy of the mission is to continue testing until the day that we are going to launch and we won’t stop this,” he said.

What happens on the launch day?

The official countdown to the launch stage begins seven days before the day of lift-off.

In this case it will be after July 8 when the Emirati engineers and the Japanese team start preparing for the rocket roll out.

The launcher gets placed into the lift-off (vertical) position and then transported to the launch pad, which takes up to half an hour.

The rocket will then be fuelled and will blast into space at 12.51am and 27 seconds, UAE time.

A few factors determine whether the launch will go off on schedule, such as the weather.

There have been a few missions that have been delayed due to poor weather on the island, which has a humid, subtropical climate.

The most recent one was in September 2018, when a cargo mission to the International Space Station was delayed because of a typhoon.

A launch window is open until August 3 as Earth and Mars will be aligned favourably for such a mission.

China and the United States are also launching their spacecrafts to Mars during this period.

If missed, there is a waiting period of two years.

Will the launch be streamed live for the public?

No live-stream options have been announced yet by MBRSC.

There was a live broadcast of the KhalifaSat launch in 2018. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency also does live-streams of its rocket launches on its YouTube channel.