How the United Arab emirates set its sights on Mars
By Kenneth Chang
As a girl growing up in Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, Sarah al-Amiri looked at an astronomy book with a photograph of Andromeda, the giant galaxy neighboring our Milky Way.
“I can’t describe it,” al-Amiri said in an interview, “but just to realize that something that was printed on a page was larger than anything that I’ve ever seen and dwarfs the planet that I live on.”
When she was in college, there were few opportunities in the Middle East to pursue studies of the universe, and al-Amiri majored in computer science instead. But now, the UAE is aiming to inspire its youth to pursue science and technology careers, and al-Amiri has forged a career pursuing the heavens.
Just 33 years old, she is the head of science operations and the deputy project manager for a space probe that the UAE is about to send to Mars.
At 4:51 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, a rocket lifting a spacecraft called Hope is to begin its journey to Mars. It is the boldest move yet by a country that is looking to establish a future that will long outlive its oil wealth, and sees a space program as one way to accomplish that goal.
Mars will be much in the news for the next month, a once-every-26-month interlude when Earth and Mars line up to allow robotic spacecraft to make a relatively quick trip. After several delays, NASA’s next Mars rover, Perseverance, with instruments to search for chemical signs of past life, is scheduled to launch July 30. China will also try to launch an ambitious mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, in about a week.
A fourth mission, which would put a Russian-European rover named Rosalind Franklin on Mars, was pushed off the calendar because of technical hurdles that could not be cleared in time.
Preparations for Hope, the smallest of the bunch, proceeded smoothly, and it is now the first to be ready for liftoff.
Because the UAE does not yet have its own rocket industry, it bought the launch for Hope aboard a H-IIA rocket from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a machinery maker in Japan. At the launch site, on Tanegashima Island in Japan, the liftoff will occur at 5:51 a.m.
About the size of a Mini Cooper car, Hope is to arrive in orbit around Mars in February. The spacecraft — which cost about $200 million to build and launch — is carrying three instruments: an infrared spectrometer, an ultraviolet spectrometer and a camera.
From its high orbit — varying from 12,400 miles to 27,000 miles above the surface — Hope will give planetary scientists their first global view of Martian weather at all times of day. Over its two-year mission, it will investigate how dust storms and other weather phenomena near the Martian surface speed or slow the loss of the planet’s atmosphere into space.
That, however, is not the main reason that the Emirates government built Hope.
“A lot of you might ask us, ‘Why space?’ ” Omran Sharaf, the Hope project manager, said during a news conference Thursday. “It’s not about reaching Mars.”
Rather, Sharaf said, the country’s primary aim is to inspire schoolchildren and spur its science and technology industries, which, in turn, will enable the Emirates to tackle critical issues like food, water, energy and a post-petroleum economy.
“It’s about starting getting the ball rolling,” Sharaf said, “and creating that disruptive change, and changing the mindset.”
The Emirates previously built and launched three earth observing satellites, collaborating with a South Korean manufacturer and gradually taking on greater shares of the engineering. The country even has a nascent human spaceflight program. Last year, the UAE bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket and sent its first astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station.
For the Mars mission, the country took a similar approach to the earlier satellites by working with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, where Hope was built before being sent to Dubai for testing.
By design, Emirati engineers worked side by side with their counterparts in Boulder, learning as they designed and assembled the spacecraft. “One of the requirements that the government gave us since the beginning,” Sharaf said, “they told us, ‘You have to build it and not buy it.’ ”
The science piece of the mission was an even bigger gap to fill for a country without Mars scientists, which until recently constituted an unfathomable career choice.
If the UAE had tried to train planetary scientists from scratch to work on Hope, the mission would have been long over before the scientists were ready. Instead, Emirati officials took a quicker approach: converting some of the space center’s engineers into scientists by offering apprentice-like training with researchers in the United States.
“I was put there to develop scientific talents within the organization and be able to transfer knowledge in a nontraditional way,” al-Amiri said.
The coronavirus outbreak tossed in more challenges. Once construction of the spacecraft was complete in Colorado, a large Ukrainian transport plane ferried it to Dubai, where it was to undergo a round of testing before heading to the launchpad in Japan.
But at the end of February — not long before the European Space Agency and Russia postponed the launch of the Rosalind Franklin mission in part because of the logistical hurdles created by the pandemic — Sharaf and al-Amiri realized the outbreak could disrupt their carefully planned schedules if airports were shut down.
“Based on that, we started working on a plan to get the team across to Japan as soon as possible,” al-Amiri said.
They shuffled some of the tests in order to hurry the spacecraft to Japan, three weeks earlier than originally planned, and where some of the testing would instead be completed.
Travel restrictions meant team members could not travel back and forth. A small team went ahead in early April to wait out a quarantine. Two weeks later, the cargo plane with Hope flew to Japan with another small team from the Emirates.
In Japan, the people who flew with Hope then went into quarantine and then those who had gone ahead joined the spacecraft on the barge trip to the island that is home to the launch site.
Sharaf and al-Amiri said the mission was now ready, and the nation’s space program would continue regardless of the outcome.
“The Emirates fully understand the risk associated with this mission,” Sharaf said. “So does the team. Let’s be honest. Fifty percent of the missions that have been to Mars have failed.”