The UAE’s First Mars Mission Is a Robo-Meteorologist

“When the UAE was created, some countries were already sending things to space,” says Omran Sharaf, the program manager for the Hope mission. “To catch up requires us to be much faster than other nations. The moon is difficult, but Mars is much more difficult. And if a young nation like the UAE can reach Mars, then it shows you can do much more.”

If everything goes according to plan, the UAE will become just the fifth country to successfully put a spacecraft on or around Mars. But the Hope mission will also be marked by a number of firsts. It’s the first interplanetary mission launched by a majority Arab country, it will be the first time a Japanese rocket has launched a spacecraft to Mars, and if all goes well, Hope will be the first spacecraft to get a comprehensive understanding of the tenuous Martian atmosphere. Planetary scientists believe that Mars was once sheathed in a thick layer of carbon dioxide, but that this atmosphere was rapidly stripped away by solar winds in the early days of the solar system. Once Hope arrives in orbit next February, it will track seasonal atmospheric changes over the course of a full Martian year, which is the equivalent of two Earth years, and give researchers better insight into this process.

Hope will help fill in the gaps in understanding left by NASA’s Maven orbiter, which has been studying the Red Planet’s atmosphere since 2014. Maven was built to observe the dynamics of the upper atmosphere, says Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Maven’s lead researcher, but its instruments weren’t designed to get a good look at what was happening closer to the surface. Hope is outfitted with three instruments that will allow it to study the lower Martian atmosphere at different wavelengths to understand how it interacts with the upper atmosphere and the rest of the planet to create seasonal weather patterns.
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“Maven couldn’t do everything,” says Jakosky, who was a scientific adviser for the Hope mission. “In designing the Hope mission, we wanted to pick areas that were important, yet not really addressed by earlier missions. And our experience with Mars is that every time you make a new type of measurement, you make fundamental discoveries about the behavior of the system.”

For example, Hope will shed light on a Martian mystery uncovered by Maven, which detected large plumes of hydrogen escaping from the planet. The hydrogen likely comes from atmospheric water vapor split apart by sunlight in the lower atmosphere, but the processes that cause it to escape into space aren’t well understood. They’re worth figuring out, though. Geological evidence collected by Martian orbiters and rovers suggests that a younger Mars may have hosted vast oceans of liquid water on its surface around 4 billion years ago. But today the planet is cold, dry, and barren. Studying its atmosphere may tell us how it became this way, and whether conditions were ever conducive to life.

“We know that Mars used to have a much thicker atmosphere, it was warmer, and it was wetter,” says Tanya Harrison, the science programs manager at Planet, an Earth-imaging satellite company, who previously worked on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. “The big questions are, how did the atmosphere get to the point it’s at today, and what’s causing it to blow into space?”

The Hope spacecraft may be on a mission to Mars, but its architects also underscore its importance for people back on Earth. The Emiratis and their neighbors are expected to be hit especially hard by climate change; some projections forecast that large swathes of the Middle East will be uninhabitable by the middle of the century due to drought and soaring temperatures. Sharaf says that the skills gained from launching and operating Hope will help Emirati scientists and engineers develop the technical skills they need to deal with climate change on Earth.

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