The Hope spacecraft will study the Martian atmosphere
The United Arab Emirates is headed to Mars. The Emirates Mars Mission, which consists of an orbiter called Hope, is set to launch between 20 and 22 July and begin a seven-month journey to the Red Planet to study its atmosphere and weather. The launch had been set for earlier this week, but was delayed due to bad weather.
Hope will blast off from Tanegashima, Japan, aboard a Japanese rocket, and if all goes well it will arrive at Mars in February 2021. This will make the United Arab Emirates just the fifth spacefaring power to reach the planet, after the US, Soviet Union, European Union and India.
Once Hope is in orbit around Mars, it will measure the atmosphere daily to try to trace how the weather and climate there changes. “The geology of Mars has been studied quite extensively. We are only just getting started on the atmosphere,” says Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE’s minister for advanced sciences and the science lead for the mission.
The spacecraft carries three scientific instruments: a camera to take high-resolution images of Mars’ surface and look for water ice, an infrared spectrometer to measure dust, ice, and water vapour in the lower atmosphere and an ultraviolet spectrometer to measure the composition of the upper atmosphere.
Rather than simply circling the planet, Hope will follow an elliptical orbit that will bring it relatively close to the surface – about 20,000 kilometres up – every 55 hours. This will allow it to observe the same locations at different times of day, building up a model of how the weather responds to changes in sunlight.
Observing Mars’ weather in such detail will hopefully help researchers understand not only the day-to-day conditions on the planet, but also the more extreme weather events like the colossal dust storm that engulfed the whole planet and killed NASA’s Opportunity rover in 2018.
It could also help us figure out how Mars has changed since its formation. Planetary scientists think that Mars used to be warm, damp and possibly habitable, but for some reason it lost the bulk of its atmosphere over the course of billions of years, which turned it into the dry, cold, inhospitable world it is today.
“We want to find out how it went from a dense, much wetter atmosphere to a dry and very thin atmosphere,” says Al Amiri. Hope will measure the gas that is still leaking away from the Martian atmosphere in an effort to understand how that process may have worked and how it is continuing now.
The mission marks the start of a busy summer for Mars. Right now, Mars and Earth are relatively close together, a conjunction that only happens once every two years. Later in July, China’s space agency plans to launch an orbiter, lander and rover to Mars, and just after that NASA plans to launch its Perseverance rover. If any of these missions aren’t able to launch while Mars is nearby, they will have to wait until 2022 for another chance.
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