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After 7 months and 500 million kilometres, the Emirates Mars Mission has to endure 27 nail-biting minutes of engine burn

The United Arab Emirates’ “Hope” probe is due to reach Mars orbit tomorrow (9 February) and give engineers and scientists their very own 27 minutes of tension.

Before the science can begin, the probe must fire its engines in order to drop into orbit. The spacecraft’s six engines are expected to run for 27 minutes from 1930 GST (1530 UTC), and the 11 minutes it will take for telemetry to arrive means there is little boffins can do except wait for confirmation that things are going to plan.

Mohsen Al Awadhi, lead systems engineer on the Emirates Mars Mission, told The Register that should one of the six fail, the team would fire four thrusters for a longer period. If two should fail but still be symmetrical, it should be OK. However, any additional failures would, he said, “be a mission-ending situation.”

No pressure then. The probe’s onboard software will be running the show without help from controllers, just likes those sent by ESA and NASA.

Should all go well, the team will calculate what is required to shift the probe from its capture orbit (which Al Awadhi told us would be very elliptical, coming as close as 1,000km from the Martian surface to nearly 50,000) to its science orbit of 20,000 by 43,000km.

Once in orbit, the three science instruments in the spacecraft’s payload – the Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI), Emirates Mars InfraRed Spectrometer (EMIRS), and Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) – will kick off two years of science, focused on understanding the atmospheric dynamics of Mars.

If successful, an extension will be requested six months before the nominal mission comes to an end. The spacecraft, which is stabilised using a combination of four reaction wheels and eight RCS thrusters, is constructed from off-the-shelf parts and the team estimates it will be good for three of four years. “That’s when we will understand the degrading of it and understand ‘OK, what can we do about it?'” said Al Awadhi.

We’d suggest a quick chat with ESA, which seems to be in the habit of keeping ageing spacecraft performing useful science far beyond expectations, and scientists would doubtless welcome the opportunity to study the Martian atmosphere over multiple seasons.

The team is not above a bit of international cooperation. The Hope probe itself and its payloads were designed with the help of engineers and scientists at the University of Colorado, Arizona State University, and the University of California. Emirates Mars Mission science lead Hessa Rashid Al Matroushi told The Register that, during the cruise to Mars, “we capitalised on some science opportunities, and one of them was doing coordinated observations between us and BepiColombo.”

A joint mission of ESA and Japanese space agency JAXA, BepiColumbo was launched in 2018 and is designed to study Mercury.

The joint observations helped with the quantifying of interplanetary hydrogen and cross-calibration of instruments, according to Al Matroushi. “Whenever there is an opportunity for collaboration, we tend to go ahead with it,” she laughed.

The Hope probe is a first for the UAE and a source of national pride. Other missions in the future include a potential lunar lander and rover in 2024 and Earth observation spacecraft.

However, first there is that knuckle-gnawing 27 minutes to get through. ®


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