Technology & Science

United Arab Emirates spacecraft, Amal, enters orbit around Mars in historic flight

A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on Tuesday in a triumph for the Arab world's first interplanetary mission.

Orbiter and lander from China set to arrive Wednesday, followed by NASA's Perseverance rover next week

UAE spacecraft makes historic arrival at Mars

World

2 months ago
1:11
Amal orbiter is country's 1st mission to the Red Planet. 1:11

A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on Tuesday — a triumph for the Arab world's first interplanetary mission.

Ground controllers at the the Emirates's space centre in Dubai rose to their feet and broke into applause when word came that the craft, called Amal — which is Arabic for hope — had reached the end of its seven-month, 480-million-kilometre journey and begun circling the Red Planet, where it will gather detailed data on Mars's atmosphere.

The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes in an intricate, high-stakes manoeuvre that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars's gravity. It took a nail-biting 11 minutes for the signal confirming success to reach Earth.

Tensions were high: Over the years, Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of missions from various countries.

"To the people of the U.A.E. and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the U.A.E. reaching Mars," declared a visibly relieved Omran Sharaf, the mission's director.

Two more unmanned spacecraft from the U.S. and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars over the next several days. All three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.

Amal, a spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates was swung into orbit around Mars in the Arab world's first interplanetary mission Tuesday. In this photo, a representation of Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is seen at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, U.A.E., July 19, 2020. (Ahmed Jadallah/REUTERS)

Amal's arrival puts the U.A.E. in a league of just five space agencies in history that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission. As its first venture beyond Earth's orbit, the flight is a point of intense pride for the oil-rich nation as it seeks a future in space.

An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed, the U.A.E.'s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control.

"Congratulations to the leadership and people of the U.A.E.," he said.  "Your joy is indescribable."

Most Mars missions have ended in failure

About 60 per cent of of Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars's thin atmosphere.

A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It is set to circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land in May to look for signs of ancient life.

A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harboured microscopic life.

If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times during the past 45 years. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.

The world tallest tower, Burj Khalifa is lit up with a laser show to celebrate the Hope Probe entering Mars orbit as a part of the Emirates Mars mission, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

For months, Amal's journey had been tracked by the U.A.E.'s state-run media with rapturous enthusiasm. Landmarks across the U.A.E., including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, have glowed red to mark the spacecraft's anticipated arrival.

Billboards depicting Amal tower over Dubai's highways. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country's founding, casting even more attention on Amal.

If all goes as planned, Amal over the next two months will settle into an exceptionally high, elliptical orbit of 22,000 kilometres by 44,000 kilometres, from which it will survey the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere around the entire planet, at all times of day and in all seasons.

It joins six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.

Amal had to perform a series of turns and engine firings to manoeuvre into orbit, reducing its speed to 18,000 kph from over 121,000 kph.

Emirati engineers who filled the control room held their breath as Amal disappeared behind Mars' dark side. Then it re-emerged from the planet's shadow, and contact was restored on schedule. Screens at the space centre revealed that Amal had managed to do what had eluded many missions over the decades.

Sarah Al Amiri, Emirati Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and Deputy Project Manager of the Emirates Mars Mission speaks ahead of a live broadcast of the Hope Probe as it attempted to enter Mars orbit. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

"Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft," said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the U.A.E.'s space agency.

The success delivers a tremendous boost to the U.A.E.'s space ambitions. The country's first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians. That was 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science mission chief, tweeted congratulations, saying: "Your bold endeavour to explore the Red Planet will inspire many others to reach for the stars. We hope to join you at Mars soon" with Perseverance.

Engineers, scientists worked with U.S. researchers

In developing Amal, the Emirates chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.

People watch a big screen displaying the launch of the Amal orbiter from Tanegashima Island in Japan, at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, U.A.E., July 20, 2020. The car-size Amal cost $200 million US to build and launch; that excludes operating costs at Mars. (Ahmed Jadallah/REUTERS)

The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colo., before being sent to Japan for launch last July.

All three spacecraft en route to the Red Planet lifted off within days of one another, taking advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars — thus their close arrival times.

The car-size Amal cost $200 million US to build and launch. That excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated — and expensive — because of their rovers. NASA's Perseverance mission totals $3 billion US.

The U.A.E., a federation of seven sheikdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country's scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.

"This mission was never about just reaching Mars," said Omran Sharaf, Amal's project manager. "Mars is just a means for a much bigger objective."

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