(Image credit: UAESA)
https://www.bbc.com/-By Stephen Dowling
In 2020, the UAE’s space agency launched its first Mars mission, less than a decade after it was created. How did they manage it?
On 19 July 2020, a few months into a global pandemic that had paralysed the world, a rocket shot into the sky from the Japanese space launch site on its southerly island of Tanegashima.
Aboard was a small spacecraft, a little over 2m (6.5ft) wide and weighing about as much as a Ford Focus car. Onboard it were a host of cameras and spectrometers vital for its impending mission, one which would take it more than 493 million km (306 million miles) from Earth. Perched on top of its gold body was a large black radio antenna, which would beam its data across the vast, cold abyss of space to controllers sitting at their monitors.
The spaceship was called “Hope”. It was not American, or Russian, or from the European Union. Hope was the first spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) to travel further than an orbit around the Earth. If successful, it would be the first spacecraft from an Arab nation to reach Mars, and the UAE would become only the fifth nation in the world to successfully put a spaceship in orbit around Mars.
As the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prepared to mark its 50th year, its space agency bet its reputation on putting a spaceship into orbit around Mars on the first attempt, to beam back details of Martian weather that had never been observed before.
Just six years before the launch, the UAE’s space agency didn’t even exist.
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) lies at the far end of Dubai International Airport, about half an hour’s drive east of the Burj Khalifa. By space centre standards it is relatively compact; you could probably lose it in the car park of Nasa’s giant Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
The UAE became only the fifth nation – after the US, Russia, China and India – to reach Mars, and only the second space agency to succeed on the first attempt
The collection of offices, workshops and clean rooms here is the nerve centre of the UAESA, still less than a decade old. It is from here that much of the work to guide the Emirates Mars Mission to the Red Planet was undertaken.
When I visit UAESA, in February 2022, it was a year since Hope had reached the end of its nearly 500-million-km (310-million-mile) journey from Earth and was poised to enter orbit around Mars. Getting this far was some achievement, especially for a space agency with such limited experience. The UAE had become only the fifth nation – after the US, Russia, China and India – to reach Mars, and only the second space agency to succeed on the first attempt (after India).
It is one of the space industry’s most ambitious newcomers. It was only inaugurated in 2014. A six-year attempt to forge a pan-Arab space programme, modelled on the European Space Agency, failed to materialise. This spurred the UAE to develop their own space agency, and may help explain its fast-forward approach ever since.
The UAE had launched seven satellites before its space agency came into being, all of them built by foreign companies such as Europe’s EADS, Boeing in the US and South Korea’s Satrec Initiative. It was only in 2018 that the nation was able to actually design its own: the KhalifaSat Earth-sensing satellite, which was built by a team of Emirati engineers in South Korea at Satrec Initiative’s facilities.
KhalifaSat launched in 2018, sent into orbit aboard a Proton rocket from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spacedrome. Its high-resolution images of Earth taken from some 613km (380 miles) above the Earth could be used for everything from urban planning to disaster relief. But the satellite had other objectives as well – kickstarting a scratch-built space industry in the Emirates.
In February 2022, Omran Sharaf was leading the Emirates Mars Mission. Sharaf, 38, says the inspiration for the mission was the “triple helix model, in which you have the private sector, the government and academics… to have that overlap happening. And not having each sector working as silos.”
With this, the UAE had staked its claim at becoming one of the 21st Century’s leading space agencies. In the Cold War, such developments would have seemed far-fetched. But space exploration in the 2020s is a very different beast. The space race dominated by the geopolitical rivalry of the US and the Soviet Union has fragmented, and now involves many more players – both commercial entities like America’s SpaceX, and upstart agencies from relatively small countries like the UAE.
In previous decades, space programmes that had successfully put satellites into orbit then turned their attention towards our nearest neighbour, the Moon. But not the UAE.
“The UAE had no time to wait and needed to expedite and speed up the building of these capacities. So it looked at Mars to do that,” Sharaf says. The deadline was for the mission to achieve Mars orbit before the country celebrated its golden jubilee in October 2021.
The nascent space industry’s potential may have been helped by the crash in the Gulf States’ aviation sector during the coronavirus pandemic. Long-haul hubs such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi had fallen almost silent as travel bans took hold. In 2018, the aviation sector was responsible for almost a quarter of the country’s GDP, and was expected to make nearly half by 2030 before the pandemic happened. The country has now had to look at other ways to keep its economy buoyant.
A successful space mission involving Mars is a monumental throw of the dice
The Emirates Mars Mission was not just about waving the UAE flag on the world stage. At the heart of it was the intent to produce the most complete picture of Mars’s weather cycles yet observed. The spacecraft would study Mars with three main instruments.
The first was a high-resolution imaging unit able to measure, water, ice, dust and aerosols in the planet’s atmosphere. An infrared spectrometer would monitor radiance from the planet’s surface and atmosphere, measuring the surface temperature and amounts of dust in the atmosphere. Hope’s ultraviolet spectrometer, meanwhile, would measure the planet’s entire atmosphere and study its levels of hydrogen and oxygen – the building blocks of water, the key to life.
While more than 30 spacecraft and landers had visited the Red Planet, most had only caught snapshots of the planet’s weather. Hope intended to do something much more ambitious, covering an orbit that would allow it to take a global snapshot of the Martian climate, and follow it across the planet’s distinct seasonal changes.
Sarah Al Amiri, 35, was the UAE’s Minister of State for Advanced Science when I visited Dubai in February; she’s since become the country’s minister for public education and future technology. She had been obsessed with space since she was a child, but with an Emirates space industry an unlikely proposition, she studied computer engineering instead. By the time she graduated, at age 22, what would become the UAE’s space agency had begun to take shape. Al Amiri ended up working as a software engineer on two of the UAE’s earlier satellite projects, DubaiSat-1 and 2. By the time UAESA was touting the benefits of Hope’s forthcoming mission, Al Amiri was both the project’s science lead and also the country’s minister for state for advanced sciences.
The UAE’s bold approach couldn’t mask the fact that producing a successful space mission involving Mars is a monumental throw of the dice; at least half of the 50 missions undertaken since 1960 have failed. In the early 1970s, a frenzied race between the USSR and the US to land the first spaceships on Mars led to a number of failed missions. Recent attempts have had more success, but Mars remains a challenging destination.
“We comprehended the challenges, we understood the risk moving into this, we understood that the chances of success was 50%, just from historic data,” Al Amiri says. “There was also the understanding of the amount of opportunity that will be created on the back of this mission, that far outweighed any apprehension that we personally carried with regards to the delivery,” says Al Amiri.
“For us, it was an immense opportunity that that we were grateful to be part of… this was a very important programme for the space sector in the UAE, and for science and technology at large within the country.
Dubai’s crowded airspace and the congested waters of the Persian Gulf make space launches from the UAE impossible
“Every single person knew that if they did not succeed in achieving their one small task, it could jeopardise the overall programme. That’s the sense of accountability that each individual had,” says Al Amiri.
“And we needed to have a team that had an internal drive for the success of this mission – understanding not only that it’s getting a mission to Mars do amazing science, it’s also about transforming a nation-changing culture, creating a beacon of hope.”
Despite their drive, skill and determination, the team faced one enormous set-back – Hope was due to launch in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the globe.
Dubai’s crowded airspace and the congested waters of the Persian Gulf make space launches from the UAE impossible. The launch had to take place from Japan. But the impending pandemic caused a flurry of last-minute panic. The UAE had to negotiate with the Japanese government to keep their airspace open long enough to fly Hope out of the UAE. At the same time, Sharaf had to create three different teams – one to prepare the spaceship for travel, one to travel with it to Tokyo (and then go into quarantine), and another to travel beforehand, clear quarantine, and then receive the spacecraft. The only problem? The UAE’s space agency didn’t have enough team members, so some had to be flown from Lasp (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) in the US to Dubai to make up numbers. Some spent weeks embedded with the launch crew on Tanegashima.
Hope had to be transported from Dubai aboard a giant Soviet-era Antonov heavy-lifter, carried in an oversized “clean room” container. On touchdown, it was transferred from Tokyo to a southern port, and made its way to the launch facility via barge – a lo-tech solution for a very hi-tech passenger.
The work to launch the spacecraft on time continued, though many of the Hope team had to work from their homes as the UAE went into lockdown. I ask Al Amiri if she hadn’t sometimes wished for another 18 months’ time, despite the looming deadline for launch.
“Yes,” she says, but adds they adjusted to working in the pandemic “very fast”. From the get-go, the team was making decisions about which tests they could carry out under lockdown conditions, and which they needed to move. Team members volunteered to head to Japan, even with a quarantine.
“On my end, I was liaising quite a lot with the UAE government across the board, because there were bans on travel, speaking to the ambassador from Japan and our ambassador in Japan,” says Al Amiri.
“At the height of the pandemic, you’re talking to the exact same people that were trying to understand what was going on with the health care system,” Al Amiri says. “I would have been very understanding with the individuals that I spoke to with all the headaches that they were going through over the past months, but people were highly cooperative, and highly supportive to make this mission happen. At no point did we say, ‘Okay, our contingency plan now is to delay launch, but by two years.’ I’m really glad that never crept into the conversation.”
Building in a two-year pad just for the possibility that we have a global pandemic? That wasn’t on our radar – Brett Landin
The deadline to reach Mars by the time the UAE celebrated its 50th anniversary came with an extra caveat. You can’t just launch a mission to Mars any time you like. US space engineer Brett Landin, who worked on the Emirates Mars Mission with a team in the US, underlines just how unforgiving the launch window can be. “You can only go to Mars every two years,” he says. “And so you plan for a particular launch opportunity, you know; building in a two-year pad just for the possibility that we have a global pandemic? That wasn’t on our radar.
“We asked the team, ‘Are you guys willing to go travel and be quarantined in Japan, for I can’t remember what it was 13 days, two weeks, where you’re basically you’re going to be stuck in a room?’ And I had no shortage of volunteers who said, ‘Oh, heck yes, I’m going. I want to see this launch.’ And the Emirati team was the same way. I mean, we just had full support. So yes, it was more challenging, but there’s no way we were going to let that stop us.”
Al Amiri joined the team who oversaw Hope’s final preparations before the launch in Japan, on the isolated spaceport some 43km (27 miles) south of the southern island of Kyushu. The July 2020 launch went entirely to planand Hope started its seven-month journey to Mars. The countdown was on for the team at the MBRSC to put Hope into orbit around Mars.
By February 2021, Hope was approaching Mars.
Back on Earth, the UAE’s government turned the event into a socially distanced spectacle, with crowds gathering outside the Burj Khalifa, lit up in Martian red to mark the occasion. It was timed for 19:30 local time. Travelling at 120,000km/h (74,500mph) relative to the Sun, Hope began a 27-minute-long braking manoeuvre to burn speed. Had it failed, the spacecraft would have been slung out into deep space.
A member of the press team who worked on the Mars Mission, tells me the manoeuvre had to begin some more than 2,300km (1,430 miles) away from its intended periapse some 1,060km (662 miles) above Mars – the point where the orbit would be closest to Mars’ gravitational attraction. The manoeuvre had a tolerance of plus or minus 300km (186 miles) – this, after a journey of nearly half a billion km. And after all this, the spacecraft would only be able to communicate for a few minutes before it went before the far side of Mars, lost to all communication for 15 minutes. For that time, McNabb says it was “Schrodinger’s spacecraft” – the endeavour both a success and a failure until mission control could confirm Hope had entered its orbit successfully.
As the crowd in Dubai awaited confirmation, Al Amiri was on stage speaking to the press, in front of a screen beaming furrowed brows and bustling activity back at the space centre’s mission control. She knew what to expect during this nerve-wracking period. The normal process, which had been practised and rehearsed before, was for the project director – Sharaf, in the control room at MBRSC – to go through checks with various teams. These would include his team in Dubai, a back-up team, their partners at Lasp in the US, and the engineering, power and navigation teams. But via the live feed Al Amiri noticed Sharaf making some additional checks.
Al Amiri’s assistant had an envelope with a speech written in case the mission was a failure
“He checked with two different individuals, the person that had the propulsion data up and the person that had the energy power subsystem. That was not normal for him to go check,” Al Amiri says. “It was live on stage. What’s wrong? That wasn’t what we described. So for me in my head, I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on here? What happened? That wasn’t in the script!'”
Next came an uneasy silence. “I was like, ‘He’s just double-checking the results. It’s normal to happen to check the telemetry that’s coming from the spacecraft to ensure that everything’s okay.’
But internally, it was a scary moment for Al Amiri. “Just seeing that out of sequence, two steps that he took prior to arrival. And then the deep breath he gave prior to announcing, I berated him so many times for it. He said, ‘It’s not intentional. I didn’t intend to create suspense.’ But after he did that, and knowing that that’s out of sequence, and then standing there taking a deep breath… why would you take a deep breath when you’re announcing something?” Al Amiri’s assistant had an envelope with a speech written in case the mission was a failure, hovering nearby as the wait for confirmation grew longer.
The signal the spacecraft emitted confirming it had completed its orbit took 11 minutes to make its way across the 190 million km (118 million miles) separating Earth from Mars. But succeed it had – Hope was in orbit around Mars.
The failure speech was never read. Al Amiri later threw the unopened envelope in a bin.
The mission’s success was reported around the world, but for Al Amiri, the best was yet to come. “The proudest moment, I’d say, was seeing the first unprocessed image from Mars,” she says. “That unprocessed image was beyond expectation, even with the challenges that we had with the camera on board. It was amazing. I can describe that image on and on. I think I ran to somebody said, ‘Look how beautiful it is.’ And it looked a bit greenish. They’re like, ‘What is this?’ I’m like, ‘No, you don’t get it. You don’t get images unprocessed like this.”
National pride and kickstarting new areas of the country’s economy were also important, Sharaf says.
“It’s about creating an advanced science technology sector and ecosystem in the UAE. It’s about having a ministry for advanced science, it’s about having this default industry,” he says, adding that the impetus came from the very top of the country’s government – Sheikh Hamdan, the country’s crown prince and son of the ruler Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum.
The presence of ice, formed by the hydrogen and oxygen in Mars’ thin atmosphere, shows that Mars once had the right conditions to support microbial life
“He mentioned to me this multiple times,” Sharaf says. “It is like, ‘I want this mission to prepare leaders that we can put in multiple sectors.’ It’s about having that mindset, managed risk taking, or like a smarter approach to things when it comes to risk taking.” Sharaf is a prime example of this – months after my visit, he is made an assistant minister in the government.
Hope’s mission is a proud moment for a young nation, but national pride carries little weight with the global scientific community. What will cement the mission’s legacy in the decades to come is the science.
Mars has little more than 10% of the Earth’s mass, and lies 50% further away from the Sun, but the atmospheres on the two planets share some basic similarities. Like Earth, Mars has polar ice caps. There are seasonal variations in its weather, some of them – such as violent dust storms – visible to our instruments on Earth. The presence of ice, formed by the hydrogen and oxygen in Mars’ thin atmosphere, shows that the planet once had the right conditions to support microbial life. It’s not proof that Mars had life, but certainly is a clear enough sign that it was possible.
Thanks to half a century of Martian observation, we also know that some of the planet’s weather patterns that mimic those found on Earth, such as the Katabatic winds. These form around the poles and flow across the ice – when they reach troughs and depressions, the smooth airflow becomes more chaotic, raising huge clouds of ice and dust.
Hope’s mission, as it unfolds, may uncover more about the similarities and differences in the weather between the two planets.
Al Amiri has now moved on from her role as the project’s science chief; that has been taken over by Hessa Al Matroushi, a computer specialist who joined the programme in 2015, initially to work on the mission’s ultraviolet spectrometer.
Al Matroushi speaks to me over Zoom in November 2022, days before the Emirates’ lunar rover mission is set to launch. The search for clues as to how Mars’ weather changes is one of her top priorities.
Mars, as a planet, can surprise you – Hess Al Matroushi
“We wanted the science to be unique, yet relevant and something that is on demand and needed,” says Al Matroushi. “There were specific gaps that were highlighted by the community that had been studying Mars’ atmosphere. If, for example, we have rovers, and they’re measuring data through day and night, we’re missing the global coverage, because we’re only studying one location. And then when we have orbiters that are getting global coverage, we’re missing the day-to-night variations because they’re sampling the atmosphere or taking observations at a specific times.”
Bridging the gap between these ways of monitoring Mars is undoubtedly challenging, but that is what Al Matroushi plans to do. “It’s very different. Mars, as a planet, can surprise you,” she says.
To get the most complete picture, Hope must peer into the layers of Mars’ atmosphere, seeing how the chemical composition changes from the upper reaches to the surface. “We want to understand the link between them, how processes and how the climate changes and impacts the escape of hydrogen and oxygen at higher altitude,” Al Matroushi says. “We knew by designing such a mission that we will get insights that we haven’t seen before, because such observations weren’t available.”
Before Hope, detailed knowledge of Mars’ thin atmosphere was patchy at best. Al Matroushi explains that earlier probes had discovered that some of its Earth-like atmosphere of hydrogen and oxygen was disappearing into space because of the planet’s weak magnetic field. “We’re paying attention to those two, because these are the basic components of water,” Al Matroushi says. “So if we’re talking about life… this is something really important to understand.”
“The models do help a lot, and trying to simulate what is happening and trying to make sense of the situation. But then these models are built based on observations. And it’s based on, you know, the physics that we understand. So if we don’t have complete observations, then, of course, there’s limitations in the models that we’re using as well.
“The missions that have gone to Mars had their own objectives. And there’s always new questions to be asked. So even right now, as we’re studying, we do have questions. And this is where I see like that no mission operates on its own. This is where the collaborative community, between scientists and [other] missions come together.”
Understanding such processes of how past Mars became present Mars is important – Hessa Al Matroushi
Gaining more knowledge about Mars’ climate may help with how we study long-term weather patterns back here on Earth including what, in the long-term, climate change might mean.
“Mars went through a major transformation billions of years ago,” says Al Matroushi. “And understanding such processes of how past Mars became present Mars is important. Because we want to understand what happened to our planet, because there are some similarities between us. I wouldn’t say like we’re exactly the same – for example, we do have a great magnetic field that is protecting us from the Sun, Mars doesn’t have that. It doesn’t have the protection that we do. So that could contribute to why such drastic changes happen.”
Hope’s primary Mars mission is due to last one Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years. But already Al Matroushi’s science team are looking beyond that. “During this year that we had our observations, the Sun was not high in its activity – we weren’t at the top of the solar cycle.” That could change if the mission is extended, leading to some very different observations. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of Sun activity ramping up. How that does impact [Mars’] atmosphere?”
Understanding that would give the UAE team a deeper insight into the past. “Because trying to understand like how such activities are impacting the Martian atmosphere in terms of escape in terms of the climate, in terms of the dust storms, and so on, can give us some guidance of what happened, or contributed to the changes that we’ve seen in the past. And we can derive some insights that could help us on Earth as well.”
Weather hasn’t been the only discovery. In August 2022, Hope sent back the first detailed images of a “patchy aurora” in Mars’ upper atmosphere, which suggests a chaotic meeting point between the planet’s atmosphere and solar winds. Scientists had previously expected Mars’ auroras to be relatively uniform.
Hope’s mission will extend to next February, all going to plan. Al Matroushi is already looking forward to what it may uncover in the months to come. “No Mars year will be the same,” she says. For example, this year has been a light one for dust storms – while some regional storms have raged, a truly global storm hasn’t been seen. “I can only imagine, if we were able to observe such storms that engulf the whole planet.” The excitement in her voice is palpable, even over Zoom. “It’s really exciting. There’s a lot of science to untangle.”