This month, a new mission will launch to Mars. I can’t wait to see what it discovers, but it will be a success no matter what follows liftoff. The United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency have launched dozens of missions to Mars. Many have failed but even more have succeeded, allowing the return of volumes of Mars scientific data. But this new mission, called Hope (in Arabic, Al Amal), comes from a new player in the planetary exploration business: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As its name suggests, it represents the hope of a nation celebrating its 50th anniversary, the goal of a region to inspire its youth, and the aspirations of all the nations of the world to join humanity’s push to move us beyond our home planet.
The Hope mission, also called the Emirates Mars Mission, launches on July 16, 2020, from the Tanegashima launch facility in Japan, and will go into orbit around Mars about 200 days later in February 2021. The mission will study weather on Mars, helping to provide a longer term understanding of how the atmosphere on the Red Planet works. Understanding Mars’s weather and climate not only helps us better model Mars’s past, present and future, but also helps to expand our knowledge about how planets, including Earth, work.
Mars is an important target for all space agencies, who work closely together as an international Mars science community to make sure that all of the missions to Mars move our understanding of the planet forward. The flotilla of international spacecraft that have reached the Red Planet have helped us to understand that conditions on early Mars 3.5-4 billion years ago were similar to those on the early Earth when life evolved. As the planet cooled and lost its magnetic field, Mars’s atmosphere thinned, much of its water was lost to space, and the surface became cold and bombarded by solar and cosmic radiation. Life either would have gone extinct, or migrated underground. Some day in the not-too-distant future, international teams of astronauts will be working on Mars, examining rocks in detail to understand to what extent life might have emerged, and how it differs from life on Earth. Robotic missions like NASA’s Perseverance rover also launching this summer, and the Hope mission help us to gather data to help guide the work of those future human Mars explorers.
The UAE has only had a space agency for six years, and yet here they are, about to launch for Mars. It brings to mind another country, suddenly focused on space, making a promise to land humans on the Moon and then achieving it in eight and a half years. I saw that can-do spirit of Apollo in the engineers I met at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, which is in charge of the Hope mission, when I visited in 2015 as Chief Scientist of NASA. And I saw the inspiration that Apollo fostered in the United States at work when I spoke to university engineering students as well as schoolchildren across the UAE. Space inspires, and Sarah Al Amiri, the science lead of the Hope mission, has spoken about how she hopes this mission will be a message to youth across the Middle East, helping them see science, technology, engineering, and math as paths for them to follow.
So whether Hope returns significant science data, or none at all, it is a success. It is a beacon of hope to students in the UAE and around the world that not only is the sky not the limit, Mars is waiting.
To learn more about the UAE's Hope mission, check out the A Reason for "Hope" episode of the UAE Embassy podcast series Podbridge, featuring Ellen Stofan and UAE Minister of Advanced Technology and Deputy Project Manager of the Emirates Mars Mission Sarah Al Amiri. Learn more and listen now.