• December 4, 2021

The UAE’s First Mars Mission Is a Robo-Meteorologist

Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri knows what it’s like to build a spacecraft, but she’s never launched one to Mars—or during a global pandemic. As the deputy project manager for the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission—and the country’s minister of state for advanced sciences—the 33-year-old engineer has spent the past few years bouncing between Dubai and Boulder, Colorado, where a team of Emirati scientists have been busy building a robotic satellite meteorologist called Hope. These days, Al-Amiri is quarantining near the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, where Hope is expected to depart on a seven-month journey to the Red Planet next week.

Hope is a boxy satellite the size of a small car that will use three main instruments—an imager and two gas spectrometers—to study the Martian atmosphere. Its altitude above the planet will range from 12,000 to 25,000 miles above the surface, due to its elliptical orbit, which will take 55 hours to complete. The data collected by Hope will help scientists understand how conditions observed on the surface by rovers like Opportunity interact with the atmosphere and affect the Martian climate.

But for the past two months, Al-Amiri’s been focused on more mundane concerns, like making sure her team could get exemptions to fly into Japan to prepare the spacecraft, which will launch on a rocket made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. At the same time, she’s been pulling together last-minute pandemic contingency plans to ensure that the craft could still launch even with a skeleton crew. Mars only makes a close approach to Earth every two years, and if the team doesn’t hit the six-week launch window this year, they’ll have to wait until late 2022 to try again.

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“It was a nightmare trying to align people’s schedules and get everyone here safely,” Al-Amiri says. “Thankfully, the most critical tests were done before the pandemic started, because two days after the team flew in, Japan imposed a two-week quarantine.”

Hope arrived in Japan in late April, and engineers began integrating the satellite with the rocket fairing a few days ago. But testing on the spacecraft continues apace. The UAE’s first jaunt into deep space is an important mission for the country both symbolically and technically, and it’s up to Al-Amiri and her colleagues to make sure everything goes perfectly.

The UAE may be small—it’s about the size of South Carolina—but it’s oil-rich. About a decade ago, its government started pouring its national wealth into fostering science and engineering talent. The country’s promotional materials call this a transition to a “knowledge economy” and frame it as a way to reduce the Emirates’ reliance on oil and natural gas exports. But Al-Amiri simply sees it as an investment in the future—and for the UAE, the future is in space. “We’re looking at the long-term exploration of Mars,” Al-Amiri says.

The UAE became an independent country in 1971 and only founded its national space agency in 2014, but the government has already funneled more than $6 billion toward extraterrestrial ambitions. And that investment is starting to pay dividends. Last year, the Emirati space agency sent its first astronaut, Hazzaa Al Mansoori, for an eight-day trip to the International Space Station, and it has several more astronauts in training. Agency officials are also building a simulated Mars colony in the desert in a nod to their plan to one day put boot prints on Martian soil. But the crown jewel of the space program is the Hope Mars mission, which is as much about showing that the UAE can hold its own among the space superpowers as it is about science.

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