People are watching a big screen displaying the launch of the Hope Probe from Tanegashima Island in Japan, at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2020. /CFP
A United Arab Emirates spacecraft began its journey to Mars with a blastoff in Japan on Monday in what is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
The launch of the spacecraft dubbed Amal, or Hope, marks the start of the seven-month journey to the Red Planet. The craft is expected to reach Mars in February 2021, the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since its formation.
“We have launched the H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 42 (H-IIA F42) carrying aboard the Emirates Mars Mission’s (EMM) HOPE spacecraft… at 6:58:14 (JST) (2158GMT),” rocket manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said in a statement shortly after the launch.
The mission was initially due to launch on July 14, but has been delayed twice due to bad weather conditions.
The Emirati project is one of three racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.
In October, Mars will be a comparatively short 38.6 million miles (62.07 million kilometers) from Earth, according to NASA.
Martian year of orbit
Unlike the two other Mars ventures scheduled for this year, it will not land on the Red Planet, but instead orbit it for a whole Martian year, or 687 days.
While the objective of the Mars mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, the probe is a foundation for a much bigger goal – building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years.
The UAE also wants the project to serve as a source of inspiration for Arab youth, in a region too often wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.
Around an hour after launch, the probe was to deploy solar panels to power its communication and other systems. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai will then oversee the spacecraft during its 494 million km journey at an average speed of 121,000 km per hour.
That’s when the real excitement will begin, UAE Mars mission’s deputy project manager Sarah al-Amiri told AFP before the launch.
“In my heart of hearts, I’m looking forward to the initial 24 hours after separation, and that’s where we see the results of our work,” said Amiri, who is also Minister of State for Advanced Sciences.
“It is when we first get the signal, when we know that every part of the spacecraft is functioning, when the solar panels are deployed, when we hit our trajectory and are headed towards Mars,” she told AFP earlier this month.
Several dozen probes – most of them American – have set off for the Red Planet since the 1960s. Many never made it that far, or failed to land.
The drive to explore Mars flagged until the confirmation less than 10 years ago that water once flowed on its surface.
Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, has said the “Hope” probe will offer a special perspective on the elusive Red Planet.
“What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have an holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons,” Sharaf told a pre-launch briefing.
“We have a strategy to contribute to the global effort in developing technologies and science work that will help one day if humanity decides to put a human on Mars.”
The UAE already has nine functioning satellites in orbit, with plans to launch another eight in coming years. And in September, it sent the first Emirati Hazza al-Mansouri into space on a mission to the International Space Station.
But the UAE’s ambitions go well beyond that, with a goal of building a human settlement on Mars by 2117.
(With input from agencies)