The first part of a parade of three new visitors to Mars arrives Tuesday as a robotic probe called Hope, the first interplanetary mission by an Arab nation, is set to enter orbit.
For the people of the United Arab Emirates, just getting there is a source of pride. Over the weekend, in honor of Mars, the red planet, a number of important buildings and monuments in the rich oil country about the size of Maine were lit in red.
“From the perspective of the United Arab Emirates government, basically 90 percent of this mission was successfully completed,” said Omran Sharaf, Hope’s project manager.
For the remaining 10 percent, all that remains is to watch and wait as the spaceship executes instructions that have already been loaded into its computer.
Sarah al-Amiri, who heads the science portion of the mission, said she felt a slew of emotions when the spacecraft launched last summer. But now that it’s nearing Mars, “this reinforces it,” she said.
In orbit, the spaceship can begin investigating the atmosphere and weather of the red planet.
But if a problem with the spaceship causes it to miss Mars and sail into the solar system, it would most likely be the end of the mission. “If you don’t arrive, you won’t arrive,” said Ms. al-Amiri.
On Tuesday at 7.42 p.m. in the United Arab Emirates – 10:42 p.m. east time – air traffic controllers at the Mission Operations Center in Dubai received a message from the spaceship that it had started firing engines to slow itself down and that it was under a spell to let the gravity of Mars.
Since it will take 11 minutes for the radio signal from Mars to reach Earth, the engine fire actually started 11 minutes earlier, and if something went wrong, it will be too late.
Twenty-seven minutes later the engines shut off. Five minutes after the end of the shot, the spaceship will pass behind Mars and will be out of contact for 15 minutes. When it reappears, the controllers can confirm whether it is moving on a highly elliptical path around Mars.
The mission is to spend two years studying how dust storms and other weather conditions near the surface affect the speed at which Martian air escapes into space.
One day after the Hope maneuver, a Chinese spaceship, Tianwen-1, is also slated to enter orbit around Mars. The Chinese mission carries a lander and a rover to explore a large impact basin called Utopia Planitia. However, these should not detach from the orbiter and come to the surface until May.
NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, will arrive on Mars on Thursday next week. Without going into orbit first, it is instead quickly decelerated from 12,000 miles per hour to a complete stop on the Martian surface in what NASA calls “seven minutes of terror.”
Perseverance’s destination is the Jezero Crater, a dry lake that appears to be a place where signs of life could be preserved if life were ever to arise on Mars.
All three missions were launched last July to take advantage of a favorable alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs every 26 months.
While NASA has decades of experience launching spacecraft to other planets, and China has successfully sent a number of robotic missions to the moon in recent years, the United Arab Emirates is a newcomer to planetary research.
The Hope Mission is an unusual collaboration between the United Arab Emirates and the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, a research institute at the University of Colorado that has been working on space missions for more than half a century.
Although the spaceship was built in Colorado, many engineers from the United Arab Emirates lived there for years and gained expertise while working with their more experienced American counterparts.
Ms. al-Amiri said the mission had also generated wider interest in space. People in the UAE asked questions such as why communications between Earth and Mars are delayed and why it is difficult to get into orbit.
“It was excellent to promote science communication with the public and gain understanding in an area that has been largely ignored not only within the country but also within the region,” said Ms. al-Amiri. “It wasn’t a topic of conversation.”
With the UAE also lacking rockets or launch pads, the Hope spacecraft traveled to Japan to go into space and launched in July on an H-IIA rocket built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited.
In the seven months since then, the spaceship, which weighs about 3,000 pounds and is roughly the size of an SUV, has traveled 300 million miles. Mission controllers could dispense with the two final planned course corrections because the spaceship stayed exactly on target.
On the way, the spaceship was able to make some scientific observations. In one case, Hope and BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese spacecraft spiraling towards Mercury, turned to each other and took identical measurements of hydrogen between the two spacecraft. This should help scientists working on both missions calibrate their instruments and get new information about the solar system.
Another set of observations attempted to track interplanetary dust.
“The opportunity arose and we know that these datasets are quite rare for scientists studying this type of science, so we hope to publish them soon and serve the community,” said Ms. al-Amiri.