The United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe Enters Into Mars Orbit

The spacecraft’s successful transit makes the UAE the fifth nation to reach the Red Planet

United Arab Emirates' Hope space probe
Engineers working on the Hope space probe prior to launch. Emirati Mars Mission

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope space probe has officially entered Mars’ orbit, reports Isabel Debre for the Associated Press.

The spacecraft, which represents the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first interplanetary mission, blasted off on its 300-million-mile journey to the Red Planet in July 2020 from a launch site in Japan. The car-sized Hope fired its engines for 27 minutes starting at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time Tuesday to bring itself into Mars’ gravitational pull and begin its orbit.

News of the success didn’t reach Earth until 11:14 a.m. ET because signals take 22 minutes to travel the roundtrip distance between the two planets, reports Joey Roulette for the Verge. That time-delay meant Hope was essentially on auto-pilot for the final, most crucial phase of its trip to Mars, and that the team behind the spacecraft had to endure an agonizingly long period of radio silence to find out if the spacecraft had successfully begun a Mars orbit, reports Leah Crane of New Scientist.

Hope, or Amal in Arabic, burned nearly half its fuel to reduce the spacecraft’s speed from roughly 75,000 miles per hour to around 11,000 miles per hour, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN. Failing to slow down would have sent the spacecraft sling-shotting around Mars’ and into deep space.

Hope is the first of three spacecrafts expected to reach Mars this month. The UAE’s probe will be joined by the United States’ Perseverance and China’s Tianwen-1. This blitz on the Red Planet is owed to particularly close alignment with Earth lasting around a month, reported Joe Palca for NPR in 2020.

Hope’s scientific mission is to study Mars’ atmosphere and weather, reported Meghan Bartels of Space.com in 2020. The probe will peer down at the Martian surface and the gases that swirl above it with a trio of instruments designed to image the planet in ultraviolet, infrared and visible light, respectively, reported Kenneth Chang of the New York Times in 2020.

A uniquely distant orbit around Mars—ranging between 12,400 and 27,000 miles—will allow Hope’s instruments to provide the first ever global view of Mars at all times of day, according to the Times. In a separate story for NPR Joe Palca reported that most Mars orbital missions circle roughly 300 miles above its surface and provide a less comprehensive view.

Per NPR, Hope’s novel orbit will allow it to observe the entirety of the Martian surface once a week. "It's providing us with full understanding of the changes of the weather of Mars throughout an entire Martian day and throughout all the seasons of Mars throughout an entire Martian year, which lasts roughly two Earth years," Sarah Al Amiri, deputy project manager and science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission, tells NPR.

From this vantage, Hope will study how the layers of gas in Mars’ atmosphere interact and how those dynamics shift over time, according to New Scientist. Among the key questions these observations seek to address is why Mars’ atmosphere leaks so much of its gas into space—a phenomenon that may offer insights into the planet’s transition from warm and wet to cold and dry.

But Hope’s mission is not just scientific. “A lot of you might ask us, ‘Why space?’” said Omran Sharaf, Hope’s project manager, in a July 2020 news conference. “It’s not about reaching Mars.”

As Chang wrote in the Times, the goal is to inspire the next generation of UAE scientists and engineers and kickstart the country’s science and technology sectors and move towards a more knowledge-based economy. “It’s about starting getting the ball rolling and creating that disruptive change, and changing the mind-set,” said Sharaf.

With Hope safely inside Martian orbit, the next two months will involve systematic tests of the spacecraft and its instruments before scientific measurements begin, according to New Scientist. In the 2020 news conference, Sharaf said the team hopes to have scientific data to share by September 2021.