UAE Hope probe reaches Mars
This month a fleet of spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States are reaching Mars. The missions have coincided because all three took advantage of a two-month launch window last year when Earth and Mars lined up just right in their orbits; this only happens once every two years. The missions are a first on many levels: it’s China’s first independent Mars landing, NASA’s Perseverance mission is taking a helicopter to Mars, it’s the UAE’s first space foray; their orbiter spacecraft is called Hope. Chair of the UAE Space Agency, Sarah Al-Amiri, joined Phil Sansom to explain the mission...
Sarah - We sent this probe to investigate the weather system of Mars throughout an entire Martian year, and to understand the weather dynamics more thoroughly than they've ever been studied before. The difference between this mission and other missions is that other missions have studied the weather system of Mars, but only during two times of the day, that's around 2:00 AM and 2:00 PM local time on Mars. What we're doing is understanding better the full dynamics; so for example, the phenomena of dust storms on Mars that start in a localised area and cover the entire planet.
Another piece of the puzzle that we'd like to fill in is: what role does Mars' weather system play in atmospheric loss? And therefore we're able to link the, for example, dust storms, especially global dust storms, to rates of escape of hydrogen and oxygen. And that fits in very well with the global understanding of what happened to Mars, especially what happened to Mars from the perspective of climate change.
Phil - Sarah, I'm quite shocked to hear that Mars has weather at all. Given not having an atmosphere, I'd imagine their forecast is a lot of, you know, “cold, very cold darkness of space”.
Sarah - It does have a very light atmosphere. There is a cloud system on Mars, there's water vapour that circulates around the planet. You've also got dust within the lower atmosphere of Mars where the weather system is. It's actually interesting, the weather system on Mars, and hence why we're understanding it better throughout an entire year, because that hasn't been covered extensively; and scientifically, it actually does have a good link into looking into Mars today, just to understand from the wider space of things as historically what happened to this planet.
Phil - So you've got sort of the traces of an atmosphere, and you've got some weather going on. Your Hope probe is going to be orbiting - if all goes well - around Mars. I assume it's not got a weather vane because that's pretty low tech. So what's your high-tech equivalent?
Sarah - We're orbiting around Mars in a very unique orbit. Like I said, the previous orbiters have orbited from the North to the South pole and they're very close to Mars. We're about 20,000 kilometres at our closest point and 43,000 kilometres at our furthest point. So we look at the lower atmosphere of Mars; that's where the weather is happening. We use the infrared spectrometer and that allows us to measure dust, it allows us to measure the cloud system and water vapour. Also an ultraviolet spectrometer, and that actually looks at how far a cloud of hydrogen and oxygen shrouds Mars; and that's where atmospheric escape happens, and that's what it measures.
Phil - All this stuff can't be cheap. So why is the UAE getting in on the science of Mars? Why send Hope now?
Sarah - The first and primary objective of this mission is to build capabilities. We're a country that's slowly transitioning into a nation that is based on science and technology. And space, especially planetary exploration, allows you to develop a lot of capabilities in just one programme in one mission. And today we have engineers who are able to design and develop a very complex and autonomous system, and it's already a very difficult mission to undergo. Only half of the missions have succeeded in their first time to get into orbit around Mars. And that gives us a sort of shift in mindset, and as a nation that was built on commodities and natural resources, it's a great transition point for us.