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Tue 21 Jul 2020 05:06 PM

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UAE's Mars Hope probe launch kicks off a trio of missions as red planet draws close

The UAE's $200 million probe will arrive at Mars in February to gather information about its atmosphere and weather patterns

UAE's Mars Hope probe launch kicks off a trio of missions as red planet draws close
A screen broadcasting the launch of the Hope Mars probe at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai.

It’s a busy time for Mars exploration as the red planet’s biennial proximity with Earth will see three new missions launched within the next month.

As Mars draws within about 36 million miles of its neighbour - the closest it’s been in two years - the United Arab Emirates, China and the US are sending probes to take advantage of the nearness. The UAE launched its mission Sunday, with the US and China to follow later this month and next.

The UAE successfully launched its Mars Hope probe from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre using a Japanese rocket, according to the space agency. Take-off had originally been scheduled for July 14 but was delayed by weather.

The $200 million probe will arrive at Mars in February to gather information about its atmosphere and weather patterns, according to the UAE Space Agency website.

“This has been a defining moment on our six-year journey to build and launch Mars Hope,” Omran Sharaf, Emirates Mars Mission project director at the Mohammad bin Rashid Space Centre, said in a statement. “The team at MBRSC are delighted and celebrating, obviously, but there’s a lot of work yet to go.”

Lining up

Earth and Mars draw into alignment for about one month every two years, a point when it’s more advantageous to set off for Mars. After late August, the next opportunity this good won’t arrive until 2022.

The Emirates established the UAE Space Agency in 2014, announcing the same year a plan to send a satellite to Mars. The current goal is to reach Mars for the 50th anniversary of the nation’s founding in 2021.

Space technology would help the UAE diversify from oil and build its international standing. The government hopes to get a return on its space-program investments in the long run, said Mohammed Al Ahbabi, general director of the space agency.

“UAE’s aim is to set a model in the region because as you know, we live in a very difficult region,” Al Ahbabi said in an interview. The Gulf state wants to send a good signal locally, regionally and internationally, he said.

Complex

Both the US and China plan to land on Mars. Those missions are more complex because the planet has an atmosphere, as opposed to the Moon, so landers need heat protection on their journey down to the planet’s surface.

The US mission is called the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and has a launch window of July 30 to Aug. 15, set to arrive on the planet’s surface in February, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s website.

The US rover vehicle will drill for soil and rock samples to search for evidence of life, the possibility of habitable conditions that existed in the past, or past microbial life. It will also deploy a drone helicopter named Ingenuity for aerial surveillance - a first for any agency.

China’s mission, Tianwen-1, includes an orbiter, lander and rover - the first of its kind among Mars missions, according to Science Magazine. Set for a July launch, though no specific date yet, this would be China’s first bid at an independent Mars mission.

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