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The Hope Mars orbiter will be able to observe the entire planet every nine Martian days

Alexander McNabb/MBRSC

The Hope orbiter is arriving at Mars. This uncrewed spacecraft is the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission and will enter orbit on 9 February, after which it will start to build the most complete picture of the Martian atmosphere we have had.

“The team has prepared as well as they can possibly prepare to reach orbit on Mars,” said Sarah Al-Amiri, the chair of the UAE space agency and the science lead for the mission, during a press conference on 28 January.

That preparation is crucial – it will take 11 minutes for a signal from Hope to reach Earth, so the entire operation to enter Mars’s orbit will be on autopilot. If anything goes wrong, the probe is pre-programmed to deal with various problems by itself during the 27 minutes the thrusters will fire to put the spacecraft into a stable orbit.

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“By the time we see the start of the burn, it’s already almost halfway complete,” said Pete Withnell at the University of Colorado Boulder, a programme manager for the mission, during the press conference. “We are observers, and we get to see what’s happening, but we do not interact in real time.”

Watching the spacecraft’s delayed signals will be nerve-wracking, says Omran Sharaf at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, another programme manager. “Firing the thrusters for 27 minutes non-stop is something we haven’t done before,” he says. “We couldn’t test it on Earth because if we did, we could have damaged the spacecraft, so we could only test it for a few seconds.” Even the small manoeuvres that the craft has performed on its way to Mars only required the thrusters to fire for a minute or less.

Once in orbit, Hope will provide us with an unprecedented view of Mars. The six other active craft orbiting the planet follow paths around the equator which line up with its rotation in such a way that they can only see any particular area of the surface at one time of day. Hope, on the other hand, will circle the equator, allowing it to get a complete picture of the planet every nine days – including every spot on the surface at every time of day.

The spacecraft carries three main scientific instruments that will allow it to observe Mars’s atmosphere in wavelengths from the infrared into the far-ultraviolet. “For the first time, the world will receive a holistic view of the atmosphere,” says Sharaf.

The goal is to study how the different layers of the atmosphere interact with one another and how those interactions change depending on the time of day and year. This will help us answer the long-standing question of how gas escapes from the Martian atmosphere and floats away into space, a process which keeps Mars cold and dry, rather than warm and damp as it may once have been.

If Hope enters orbit safely, scientists and engineers will then spend two months testing the spacecraft and its scientific instruments before starting to take measurements of Mars. “Hopefully by September 2021 we will have science data that we can share,” says Sharaf.

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