Emirati engineers prepare KhalifaSat, an Earth imager, for a 2017 launch. 

Space Technologies Laboratory, MBRSC

Small gulf nation to probe mysteries of martian atmosphere in 2020

In the mid-1970s, Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was preoccupied with such earthly matters as building his young nation when a series of meetings at his palace with several Apollo astronauts turned his gaze to the heavens. “From that time, His Highness became interested in space,” says Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency in Abu Dhabi. Zayed’s fascination stirred him to establish programs that have dispatched numerous Emirati students abroad for training and stints at NASA and other U.S. facilities.

Zayed died in 2004, but the seed he planted 4 decades ago is about to blossom into a startlingly ambitious project: a science mission to Mars. In July 2020, the oil-rich nation aims to launch a spacecraft called Hope that will orbit the Red Planet and probe its atmosphere from top to bottom, beaming back “the first holistic view of the entire dynamics of the lower atmosphere of Mars,” says Sarah Amiri, Hope’s science lead. The mission team, some 120 young Emirati scientists, is now gearing up for a critical design review. (The space agency has not released the mission’s budget, though it notes that the UAE has spent
$5.4 billion so far on its space program.) 

Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who isn’t involved in the mission, says it promises “data we’ve not had for Mars before.” She hopes the UAE Mars probe will inspire others to undertake more such “smaller, nimbler missions that complement the big ones and really help us build up a picture of our neighboring planet.”

To be launched on a Japanese rocket, Hope derives its novelty largely from an unusual orbit that will enable it to cover the entire planet. Five of the six spacecraft now reconnoitering Mars loop around the planet in a polar or near-polar orbit, which limits them to viewing any point on Mars just twice each martian day. Hope will follow a lower inclination orbit that will allow the spacecraft to monitor the atmosphere at various latitudes throughout the day and across seasons, thus offering researchers a global view of how the atmosphere evolves, says Amiri, who trained as a computer scientist before rising through the ranks of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, UAE, which is running the mission.

Hope’s second goal is to probe how the martian atmosphere bleeds off into space, a phenomenon that, over billions of years, has left the planet bone dry and inhospitable. In 2015, NASA’s MAVEN mission showed that the solar wind helps erode the martian atmosphere. Hope will probe the link between processes in the lower atmosphere, which contains most of the martian atmosphere’s water vapor, and the escape of hydrogen and oxygen from the upper atmosphere. “When something wiggles at the bottom of the atmosphere, how does that make other things, different things, wiggle at the top of the atmosphere? No previous mission has been able to tackle that question,” says David Brain, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who is helping design Hope’s instruments, a high-resolution camera and infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers. 

If all goes as planned, Hope will spend 7 months en route to Mars and send back data for analysis in time for the UAE’s 50th anniversary on 2 December 2021. But planners acknowledge that the mission is something of a gamble considering the UAE’s limited experience in space. MBRSC operates two DubaiSat Earth-imaging satellites, built with South Korea; an MBRSC team is going solo on a third imaging satellite called KhalifaSat, which is slated for a late 2017 launch from Japan aboard a Mitsubishi rocket. 

Already, though, one payoff is clear: The mission is nurturing a new generation of Emirati planetary scientists preparing to work on Mars data, says Hope mission head Omran Sharaf, an electrical engineer who previously worked on the DubaiSat satellites. More broadly, Sharaf and others hope that Hope will entice the Gulf’s next generation to embrace science as countries in the region begin contemplating postpetroleum economies. “This mission should serve as a catalyst for change,” he says. “A first step.”