UAE Mars mission: Hope probe successfully enters Mars orbit - what is the purpose of the mission?

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Dubai-based scientists hope to find out more about the planet’s temperature and atmosphere

Tuesday 9 February will go down in history as a groundbreaking moment for the United Arab Emirates, as the country's Hope probe spacecraft successfully entered Mars Orbit, the first to do so by the country.

Engineers and scientists at the station in Dubai achieved the hardest part of their greatest mission yet on their first attempt, the Hope Probe’s successful has ranked the UAE as only the fifth country ever to reach the red planet.

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The ‘Hope’ spacecraft had to enter the planet’s orbit at exactly the right time, executing a 27-minute-long braking period without any human interaction, in order to safely launch into Mars’ gravitational pull.

A demonstration of what the probe would look like as it approaches Mars (Picture: MBRSC)A demonstration of what the probe would look like as it approaches Mars (Picture: MBRSC)
A demonstration of what the probe would look like as it approaches Mars (Picture: MBRSC)

Here is everything you need to know about the mission and how the orbit reached Mars.

What is the Hope Orbiter?

Hope is the name given to an SUV-sized spacecraft, powered by six engines, which was launched into space seven months ago.

The mission for Hope was to orbit Earth’s neighbouring planet by launching it into the gravitational pull of Mars, where it will then be able to send back continuous photos and data from the planet.

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The spacecraft’s six engines carried roughly 800 kilos of fuel, about half of which was used by the engines as it performed an intense and vital 27-minute-long orbit of the planet before entering the Mars insertion orbit.

The spacecraft has been supported by engineers here on Earth, but the final phase of its mission to Mars was carried out completely independent from any human interference.

What will happen on Tuesday 9 February?

On Tuesday 9 February 9, the spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit, this was dependent on the execution of the independent braking period which enabled the spacecraft to enter the initial orbit at exactly the right speed and weight to be captured by gravity.

The spacecraft left Earth in July 2020 and has been controlled by engineers in Dubai since, but Tuesday’s mission was required to be so in sync with the insertion orbit entry point that the 11-minute time delay from here on Earth would prove too late to manually perform the task.

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Instead, the orbiter was programmed to burn its own engines to bring the braking speed down from over 120,000km/h (75,000mph) to 18,000km/h as it approached the planet’s gravitational pull - in order to time the insertion perfectly.

The engines used up around 400 tonnes of the 800 on board, in the 27 minutes it took to reduce the speed. The lighter craft was then able to be pulled into the planet’s orbit.

The 27-minute-long braking period was carried out by the probe, while it made only sporadic communication with the UAE space station, through the US space agency's (Nasa) Deep Space Network of radio dishes.

The autonomy of the Hope probe meant if anything went wrong, there would be nothing anyone on Earth can do.

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Prior to the successful mission, project director, Omran Sharaf told the BBC: "We're entering a very critical phase. It's a phase that basically defines whether we reach Mars, or not; and whether we'll be able to conduct our science, or not.

"If we go too slow, we crash on Mars; if we go too fast, we skip Mars.”

The breaking section of the mission will began at 19:40 Gulf Standard Time (15:40 GMT) on Tuesday.

It then entered its initial orbit where it continued to only communicate intermittently with the space center until it has successfully executed the task.

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On Tuesday, as the mission entered it’s final stages, propulsion engineer Ayesha Sharafi said: “It's definitely going to be nerve-racking; just thinking about it gives me goose-bumps.

“But we do have a fault-protection system in place that can compensate for any problems that might happen during the burn, so I think we're in a good position for Mars orbit insertion to happen successfully."

The Hope team then endured an anxious wait until the machine had followed its orbit trajectory to within satellite reaching distance from Earth, where the spacecraft then sent signals to inform the team it had been successful.

For Hope to remain in Mars orbit and conduct its research, it will position itself in a near-equatorial orbit about 22,000km to 44,000km from Mars later in the year.

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What time did the signal reach Earth that the mission was successful?

The announcement of the successful mission came from the mission's Twitter account at 11:16 a.m. ET (4.16pm GMT).

It tweeted: "Success! Contact with #HopeProbe has been established again. The Mars Orbit Insertion is now complete.”

The space centre began live coverage of the final phase of their landing on Youtube, from around 3pm GMT.

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Prior to the announcement of mission’s success, the UAE minister of state for advanced technology and chairperson of the UAE Space Agency, Sarah Al Amiri, stated that the mission will not be considered a real success for some months.

She said: “For me to declare mission success is very hard to do. It’s a continuous learning experience. It’s a continuous mission.”

What is the purpose of the mission?

Success will allow the UAE space center to begin its mission to study Mars' climate, via Hope.

The probe will be used as a climate satellite, delivering information about the weather on Mars back to scientists in the UAE.

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It will work to understand why Mars has lost much of the water which once existed on its surface and seek to determine how energy moves through the atmosphere - in which direction and in different seasons of the planet’s cycle.

The orbit will also provide routine and consistent photos of the red planet and here on Earth.

Is the UAE the only country involved in the mission?

The UAE Hope mission was steered by the MBRSC, supported by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

China and the US also have satellites which are expected to orbit Mars in the coming week.

China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter attempts its own mission to enter Mars’ orbit on today (Wednesday 10 February), while the Americans turn up one week later, on 18 February.

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