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UAE’s ‘Hope’ probe poised to enter Mars orbit

The UAE’s “Hope” probe on Monday began a perilous manoeuvre to enter Mars’ orbit, a half-hour process that will determine the fate of the Arab world’s first space mission.

If successful, the probe which is designed to reveal the secrets of Martian weather, will become the first of three spacecraft to arrive at the Red Planet this month.

The United Arab Emirates, China and the United States all launched missions last July, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.

The venture marks the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE’s seven emirates.

Landmarks across the Gulf state have been lit up in red at night and government accounts and police patrol cars emblazoned with the #ArabstoMars hashtag.

Mission officials said Hope had begun a 27-minute “burn” to slow itself enough to be pulled in by Martian gravity, in what they warn is the most challenging part of the journey.

The probe will rotate and fire all six of its powerful thrusters to dramatically slow its average cruising speed of 121,000 kilometres (75,000 miles) per hour to about 18,000 kph.

With an 11-minute communications lag — the time it takes for a signal to travel back to Earth — the spacecraft must be highly autonomous.

“Fifty percent of missions that tried before us were not able to enter orbit,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and Dubai’s ruler.

However, he said, even if the probe does not enter orbit, “we have entered history. This is the farthest point in the universe that Arabs have reached in our history.”

The “burn” is scheduled to end at 1557 GMT, and at 1608 GMT the UAE will have its moment of truth.

In the mission control room, officials in traditional dress, together with face masks, stood behind curved white monitoring stations.

And as the clock ticked down, Dubai’s needle-shaped Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, lit up in red with blue laser lights, to the backdrop of dramatic music.

“Twenty-seven blind minutes will determine the fate of seven years of work,” Sarah al-Amiri, chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency and minister of state for advanced technology, tweeted this week.

– ‘Bigger objective’ –

While the probe is designed to provide a comprehensive image of the planet’s weather dynamics, it is also a step towards a much more ambitious goal — building a human settlement on Mars within 100 years.

Apart from cementing its status as a key regional player, the UAE also wants the project to serve as a source of inspiration for Arab youth, in a region too often wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.

“This project means a lot for the nation, for the whole region, and for the global scientific and space community,” Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, told AFP.

“It’s not about reaching Mars; it’s a tool for a much bigger objective. The government wanted to see a big shift in the mindset of Emirati youth… to expedite the creation of an advanced science and technology sector in the UAE.”

To mark the historic moment, the UAE this week projected onto the Dubai night sky images of Mars’ two moons — Phobos and Deimos — to allow residents “to see what the probe sees”.

Unlike the other two Mars ventures, China’s Tianwen-1 and Mars 2020 from the United States, the UAE’s probe will not land on the Red Planet.

Hope will use three scientific instruments to monitor the planet’s atmosphere, and is expected to begin transmitting data back to Earth in September 2021, to be made available to scientists around the world.