Since arriving at Mars eight months ago, the Emirates Mars Mission has quietly begun to deliver some intriguing scientific data about the Martian atmosphere and its weather patterns.
Named “Hope,” the probe is in a relatively high orbit, varying in altitude above Mars from 20,000 to 43,000 km. This vantage point allows the spacecraft to see an entire hemisphere at a time. For much of this year, then, the Hope probe has been training its multi-band imager, infrared spectrometer, and ultraviolet spectrometer on Mars to collect data about the planet’s atmosphere and resulting weather conditions.
The project was financed by the United Arab Emirates, and the spacecraft was built in conjunction with several US-based universities, including the University of Colorado Boulder. The goal was to inspire young Emiratis to pursue an education in math and science and train some of them through the resulting collaborations. The probe launched in July 2020 on a Japanese rocket.
One goal of the mission was to share the resulting data freely, and as a result, the mission recently opened a science data portal. Anyone can register to get access to raw images and data collected by the probe in the past, with new data sets being released every three months, without embargo. The mission, the first Arab probe sent to Mars, is planned to operate for a minimum of two years in orbit around the red planet.
The Hope probe has already made some interesting discoveries. For example, scientists had expected to observe a fairly uniform distribution of oxygen throughout the Martian atmosphere. Although the planet’s thin atmosphere is predominately composed of carbon dioxide, molecular oxygen is a trace gas. According to the Hope probe’s observations of oxygen in the upper atmosphere, concentrations vary by more than 50 percent. Similar variations were also observed in carbon monoxide.
Scientists are now working to understand these variations, which do not entirely fit within current models of the Martian atmosphere.
The probe is also closely tracking temperatures across the surface of Mars, acting as if it were the first weather satellite in orbit around the red planet. Although there will be many considerations that go into determining the initial landing sites for humans on Mars—a lack of rocky outcrops and hazards will be foremost among them—understanding local weather conditions will also be a valuable tool for mission planners.
Following the success of its Mars mission, the UAE Space Agency recently announced that it is planning a still more ambitious probe that will perform a flyby of Venus in the late 2020s and then travel to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. There, the probe will observe up to seven asteroids before attempting a landing on one of them in 2033.
For this mission, the country will again partner with US-based universities to help develop the spacecraft and to further strengthen collaboration with educators in the Middle East.
“Our goal is clear: to accelerate the development of innovation and knowledge-based enterprises in the Emirates,” said Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri, minister of state for Advanced Sciences and chair of the UAE Space Agency, in a statement. “This can’t be done by going steady-state; this requires leaps in imagination, in faith, and the pursuit of goals that go beyond prudent or methodical.”