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Emirates launches first Mars probe with help from UC Berkeley

(19 July 2020 - UC Berkeley) At 2:58 p.m. PDT today (Sunday, July 19), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) successfully launched an interplanetary probe — the first by any country in the Arab world — thanks, in part, to science collaboration, training and instrument components provided by the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL).

The Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope Probe is scheduled to arrive at Mars in February 2021 and spend two years orbiting the “red planet,” providing an unprecedented global view of the Martian atmosphere. It will also give scientists greater insight into how our Earth may have evolved and enable greatly improved weather forecasting to help support future human missions to Mars.

The mission is led by Emirati engineers and scientists, with significant sharing of expertise and technical knowledge by colleagues at UC Berkeley and three other U.S. institutions — the University of Colorado at Boulder, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University — jump-starting an interplanetary space program in a nation that, until now, had produced only Earth observation satellites. The Hope Probe was launched from a site on Tanegashima, an island in Japan, aboard a Japanese H-IIA rocket.

An hour and a half after launch, the solar panels deployed and the probe was officially on its way to Mars. “The launch has been a success,” said a relieved Robert Lillis, SSL associate director for planetary science and the UC Berkeley lead for the Mars mission, who monitored the launch from California.

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The Hope Probe will circle Mars on a 55-day orbit, analyzing its atmosphere. (courtesy: United Arab Emirates Hope Mars Mission)

‘Hope’ for Arab world

The spacecraft, which is about the size of a small car with two solar panels, was built and tested at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in collaboration with Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The mission, which cost several hundred million dollars, was named Hope (“al amal” in Arabic) to send a message of optimism to millions of young Arabs, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai for whom MBRSC is named.

The EMUS instrument (codeveloped by SSL) will provide a unique view of the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere, Lillis said. These upper layers are known as the thermosphere — the region between 100 and 200 kilometers’ altitude, where particles still collide frequently with each other — and the exosphere, a region above 200 kilometers where collisions are rare and particles can escape Mars’ gravity. The EMUS will track how matter and energy move within and between these regions, monitoring key gases like oxygen, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Such data are necessary to understand how the connections within and between the upper and lower atmospheres drive atmospheric escape. This escape has helped to shape Mars’ evolution from a warm, episodically wet world in the ancient past to the cold, dry planet we see today. Unique to Hope is its orbit, which enables near-complete daily and geographic coverage, providing a weather-satellite style view of all layers of the Martian atmosphere from the surface to space.

In addition to EMUS, the Hope orbiter includes a multi-band camera, the Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI), and an infrared spectrometer, the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS). The EXI is capable of taking high resolution images and will measure properties of water, ice, dust, aerosols and ozone in Mars’ atmosphere. It was developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in collaboration with MBRSC. The EMIRS will provide a unique view of the lower and middle atmosphere of the planet, measuring the distribution of dust particles and ice clouds, while tracking the movement of water vapor and heat through the atmosphere. It was developed at Arizona State University, in collaboration with MBRSC.