How the UAE’s millennial space corps captured this stunning picture of Mars
The Hope probe’s first picture of the Red Planet was successfully beamed back after a group of Emirati scientists — average age 27 — successfully sent it into space.
THE YEAR WAS 2014, and astrophysicist Dimitra Atri was in Baltimore, in the US, to sit on a NASA review panel. He was chatting to a fellow panelist, a Mars expert from UC Berkeley, who mentioned he was flying to Dubai to work on a “secret project.” Atri didn’t believe him.
He had been working in the space science field for decades, after all, and the UAE had never once come up on his radar. At that stage they had no space agency, and had harbored seemingly no ambitions about becoming a spacefaring country other than building a few satellites.
Which made the events of the following seven years‚ in which Atri moved to the UAE to take up a role as a research scientist at the NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Space Science, and the country successfully sent a probe into orbit around Mars—all the more extraordinary. A week later, it sent back its first picture of the Red Planet.
Celebrations reverberated around the world when the Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope probe successfully entered Mars’ orbit at around 8pm, UAE time, on February 9. It was only seven years prior that plans to launch a scientific voyage of discovery to the Red Planet by 2021 were first announced by UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, and the UAE Space Agency was established to support it.
In July 2020, the Hope probe lifted off from Japan’s Tanegashima Island, and took the hopes of the country along with it. The occasion was marked by a number of firsts: it was the first interplanetary mission launched by an Arab country, it was the first time a Japanese rocket has launched a spacecraft to Mars, and provided the mission is successful, it will provide the first comprehensive data set of the entire Martian atmosphere. Seven months later, the most “risky and critical” phase of the journey arrived: orbit insertion. The probe had to slow down from 121,000 kilometers per hour down to 18,000kph by firing its six thrusters for exactly 27 minutes in order for it to be successfully captured by Mars’ orbit. It had just a 50 percent chance of success.
Which is why, when Omran Sharaf, project director of the Emirates Mars Mission, breathed a visible sigh of relief on a livestream from the mission control room at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, and composed himself enough to calmly announce the orbit insertion successful, the country erupted. Though Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid had already hailed the mission a success due to the inspiration it had instilled in people across the Arab world, he arrived at mission control with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, both jubilant and emphatically congratulating the Hope team.
It was almost unthinkable that a seven-year-old space agency could pull off such a feat. Some global media outlets wondered if their lofty goal was “crazy” or “megalomania.” The UAE mission team’s average age was just 27. So how did they manage it?
Atri believes it was a combination of sheer will and the ability to work with other countries to leverage knowledge. While it’s not uncommon for space agencies around the world to work together on certain aspects of space missions, collaboration to this extent—the UAE is working with UC Berkeley, University of Colorado at Boulder, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University on most aspects of the mission—isn’t necessarily the norm.
“To have this level of collaboration is only seen among European countries, because they have a common space agency. This is something really new,” Atri says.
In total, Sharaf has 450 people working on the mission—200 Emiratis, 100 subcontractors, and 150 staff at partner universities in the US. And not only is the mission itself collaborative, but so too will the research. The UAE has pledged to disseminate it all to the global scientific community, and has built a web portal to ensure everyone gets easy access.
This was the overriding reason why the UAE wanted to conduct interplanetary missions in the first place, says Sharaf.
“What makes this mission unique is that the identity of the team was always one identity,” he says. “It was always the Emirates Mars Mission. It was never Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre or the University of Colorado—we were one team. You had US team members reporting to Emiratis, you had Emiratis reporting to US team members. And they learned together.”
That collaborative approach was apparent from the day the MBRSC set out to develop the probe, says Sharaf. For the launch, the mission collaborated with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, but by an hour after launch, the software used was all Emirati. The design and systems used for the orbit insertion were all Emirati-made.
“One thing that we were told [by] the government from day one is that we have to build a spacecraft, not buy it. We have to work with partners and [not] start from scratch,” says Sharaf.
The probe is carrying three scientific instruments—an infrared spectrometer, exploration imager, and ultraviolet spectrometer—which will help the UAE mission create the first complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere. The instruments will collect data on seasonal and daily changes in the atmosphere.
It will take the Hope probe 55 hours for one full orbit of Mars along its “unique” route near the equator (20,000km from the planet at its closest point, and 43,000km at its furthest). This means that over ten days, it will be able to observe each surface of the planet at different times.
“For the first time, the scientific community around the world will be able to see a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day during different seasons. Other missions observed it at one specific time,” Sharaf says.
But the other aspect of the mission that sets it apart is the youth and gender make-up of its team. The majority of the Emirates Mars Mission team are under 35, and about 80 percent of its science team are female. But this wasn’t down to any quota system, says Noora Saeed Al-Mheiri, the mission’s science data analyst for the lower atmosphere. The team was chosen based purely on merit.
“This is something that’s the norm for us,” she says. “Having the other programmatic objectives of different missions, these are what inspires the youth and the different programs that we have. It’s not exactly having agenda.”
But the diversity in the ranks of the Emirati team is refreshing for many of the industry, anyway. Atri says it’s much needed in the space industry, laughing that “most of the people I interact with at NASA are middle-aged men.”
Al-Mheiri herself was chosen for the mission in 2017 as she was working on her undergraduate research project, studying oxygen variability in the upper atmosphere. At the time, she was being mentored by members from the Emirates Mars Mission’s science team and they asked if she wanted to join them. She says it’s her “dream job.”
“You are helping the science community to understand a common goal or to complete a picture, I would say it’s a kind of a puzzle,” she says.
And this is a complex puzzle. Al-Mheiri will be involved in the nuts and bolts of the probe’s overarching goal: attempting to create the first complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere.
There are three scientific objectives of the mission, Al-Mheiri says. The first is characterizing the lower atmosphere, the second is relating those conditions to that of the upper atmosphere (specifically, the escape of hydrogen and oxygen), and the third is characterizing the Martian exosphere and looking into the changes in hydrogen and oxygen in the air.
The atmospheric data collected will help scientists understand the Red Planet in a number of ways, informing knowledge about water resources and the systems needed for humans to survive. But more importantly, Al-Mheiri says, it will provide historic information about the Earth itself. The two planets are estimated to be about the same age—some 4 billion years old—but Mars is considered “dead” and covered in toxic soil.
“Billions of years ago, it’s been noted that Mars had a warm, wet, and thick atmosphere—and it was known to support water in a liquid format. But the atmosphere was degraded, in which it can only support water as a form of water vapor or water ice,” says Al-Mheiri. “So understanding what the processes are that took place… will help us to understand and see whether our Earth will face the same.”
Sharaf agrees, acknowledging the mission is far larger than simply making it to Mars. “The much bigger picture is about understanding humanity, preserving humanity, preserving our planet, and protecting it—so that’s the bigger goal,” he says.
Over its two years in orbit around Mars, the UAE mission will collect 1,000 gigabytes of data about the planet. The first processed dataset should be available by September or October and will then be released regularly every three months.
Atri will be keenly awaiting the data in Abu Dhabi. One of his key areas of focus has been about radiation on Mars, and how it circulates from the upper atmosphere to the surface. The surface of Mars is subject to much higher levels of radiation than Earth‚ by some estimates up to 700 times more—which is a concern for any manned trips for Mars. Even more so for the UAE’s plans to build a human base there by 2117.
But Atri wants to work on ways to fix that. He can’t say much right now, but hopes to use data from previous Mars missions (NASA’s Maven orbiter and Curiosity rover) and compare it to whatever comes in from the UAE mission, using machine learning, to find a way to protect astronauts from the dangerous radiation. He’ll also be focusing on training the next generation of Emirati students and scholars hoping to get into the space industry.
This, he says, is one of the most tangible developments in the UAE’s spacefaring ambitions thus far.“We saw it with the Apollo program—[there was] a generation of people who were young kids at the time who saw rockets going into space and astronauts, and they got excited to pursue their dreams and careers [in the space industry],” he says.
“I have seen it practically—a lot of people get in touch with me wanting to work with me from around the globe, but very few contacted me from this region. Since Hope launched last year, I get so many emails from Emiratis now. Even people in sixth grade. This is already changing the region and I hope this continues.”
But as well as inspiring the youth, Atri says there are many practical reasons for a country wanting to get into space exploration. It helps with the knowhow of building complex instruments, and it will directly contribute to the development of the country’s technology and medical sectors. This is especially pertinent to the world today, with the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Atri says the US and Germany are good examples of countries that have prioritized investments in science for decades, and which have both produced effective vaccines for the coronavirus. The US produced the Moderna vaccine, and Germany’s BioNTech collaborated with US company Pfizer on theirs.“It is not a coincidence,”
Atri says. “Long-term investments in science and technology have such positive impacts on society.”
So could that long-term investment actually culminate in putting a human on Mars in the near future, or building a human base on the Red Planet in 100 years, as the UAE plans to do?Atri says it’s impossible in the near future using current technology, due to the toxicity of the Martian soil and radiation levels. But within a few decades, and extreme advancements in technology, he says it’s viable. And it’s very possible for the UAE.
“The Emirates Mars Mission has definitely shown UAE capabilities. They set a goal and executed it in a short period of time,” he says. “Everyone is taking the UAE pretty seriously now. If tomorrow they announce they’re going to land a rover on Mars, I wouldn’t be surprised.”