The United Arab Emirates' Hope probe mission, which will launch a satellite around Mars in order to study its climate, has successfully completed a challenging half-hour manoeuvre which risked sending the probe flying into space.
The probe launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center for a seven-month voyage, facing off bad weather which caused the mission to be delayed twice in June 2020.
Hope was forced to rely on its autonomous controls in order to reach Mars, as the 190 million kilometre gap in distance between the Earth and Mars meant that it would take 11 minutes for signals from Earth to reach the craft and as such could not be controlled remotely.
Six Delta V thrusters were used to slow down the speed of Hope, using up vast quantities of fuel that comprised 91 per cent of the craft's weight.
Although the craft was autonomous there were various simulations tested while it was on Earth and actions programmed for potential risks.
Should a thruster have failed, for example, the craft would have automatically shut down another one on the opposite side - ensuring that the craft remained balanced in its descent at the expense of a slower fall.
“MOI [Mars Orbital Insertion] was the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to stresses and pressures it has never before faced," Omran Sharaf, EMM Project Director at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, said.
While we have spent six years designing, testing and retesting the system, there is no way to fully simulate the impacts of the deceleration and navigation required to achieve MOI autonomously. With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”
Achieving MOI saw the spacecraft rotated to position for a deceleration burn of 27 minutes and slowed down from its cruising speed of 121,000km/h to something nearer to 18,000km/h - burning half its fuel in the process.
Going too slow would have meant the spacecraft crashing on Mars, and if it went too fast it risked skipping past the planet.
The Hope probe will now study how energy moves through the Martian atmosphere. It will track the movement of hydrogen and oxygen atoms at the top of the atmosphere, as well as lofted dust which has a significant effect on the planet's temperature.
Now that the descent has been a confirmed success, the probe will gather up to 1,000 gigabytes of scientific data about the Martian atmosphere.
This information will be shared with 200 scientific and academic institutions globally.
"Success! Contact with #HopeProbe has been established again. The Mars Orbit Insertion is now complete", the official Hope Probe account tweeted.
This makes the UAE the fifth country in the world to reach the Red Planet.
It is possible that this research could be the foundation for human settlements on Mars, as day-by-day information about the climate of the alien would could be used to help design shelters and other technology that could be used off-world.
“The science of the mission is enabled by a unique highly elliptical orbit that Hope will adopt when it starts its two-year science mission. The orbit offers an unprecedented local and seasonal time coverage of the Martian atmosphere. Combined with the unique instrumental synergy, Hope will explore Mars different atmospheric layers revealing new and global perspective of its atmospheric behaviour and connections,"Hessa Al Matroushi, Science Lead for the mission at the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, said.
The probe has a 20,000-43,000km elliptical science orbit and completes one orbit of the planet every 55 hours. While it will be in daily contact with Earth during the capture orbit phase, in its science orbit contacts will take place two to three times a week.
It will take six to eight hours each time for data to be downloaded and updates and instructions to be uploaded.
The spacecraft will explore the atmosphere of the planet, something that has not been done by any previous probe to the planet.
Hope will aim to answer a number of questions, including how conditions throughout the Martian atmosphere affect rates of escape of hydrogen and oxygen - the building blocks of life - and how the Martian exosphere (upper atmosphere) behaves at different times during the day and at different distances relative to Mars.
Hope is the first of three missions to arrive at Mars this month. On Wednesday, China's Tianwen-1 mission will also try to make it into orbit, and Nasa's Perseverance rover will arrive on February 19.
Additional reporting by agencies
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies