July 2020 was an incredibly busy month for Martian explorers, with NASA and the Chinese space agency launching rovers to our cosmic neighbor, preparing to look for signs of ancient life on the barren surface of the red planet.
But a third mission, led by the United Arab Emirates, may be the most important of all. It contains no rover or lander and will never reach the surface of Mars. Instead, it will circle the red planet for months, hoping to unravel some of the lingering mysteries about Mars' unusual atmosphere.
It's known as "Al Amal," or "Hope."
When the Hope satellite reaches Mars on Feb. 9, it'll be the first probe to offer a full picture of the Martian atmosphere, providing a holistic view of how Mars' climate varies throughout the year. But here on Earth, it may achieve something even more important: providing hope to a younger generation, bringing more women into STEM and promoting collaboration between nations.
Because there's something else that makes it special: Hope is the first interplanetary mission led by an Arab, Muslim-majority country.
"The intent was not to put a message or declaration to the world," says Sarah Al Amiri, chair of the UAE Council of Scientists and deputy project manager for the Emirates Mars Mission. "It was, for us, more of an internal reinforcement of what the UAE is about."
The satellite, which launched from Japan in July, will study the connections between the red planet's lower and upper atmosphere and examine the causes behind Mars leaking hydrogen and oxygen into space. After achieving its orbit around Mars, it'll collect data for two years. There's also an option to extend the mission to 2025.
It's no coincidence Hope will arrive at Mars the year the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary. The mission is an act of resilience for the young nation. When the UAE announced in 2014 it would launch the Hope Mars Mission, it was a tumultuous time for the region. Throughout the Middle East, nations were (and many still are) embroiled in anti-government protests and uprisings. Terrorist organizations like ISIS were gaining a stronghold and recruiting efforts were focused on one particular group: young people.
In the region, members of that younger demographic are demanding new opportunities from their governments. The Hope Mars Mission (also called the Emirates Mars Mission) seems like the perfect way to offer that. Ninety percent of team members are 35 and under.
There's also been a boost in space exploration-related jobs throughout the country. Universities have actively recruited faculty for positions related to Mars and planetary science, while the UAE Space Agency, created with this mission, has generated new jobs for overseeing programs within the nation. The Emirati team at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre has grown from 70 people in 2015 to more than 200 today.
"From a region that's primarily made up of youth, it was very important for governments and nations to provide opportunities for them and to provide them with a beacon of hope," Al Amiri says. This, combined with the UAE's push to diversify its economy as its oil supply dwindles, made a Mars mission a compelling choice, she says.
International collaboration is a critical element of the Hope Mars Mission. The UAE is working with the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of California, Berkeley; and Arizona State University on the mission.
The probe will carry three scientific instruments. First is the Emirates Exploration Imager (EXI), a camera that can capture and send high-resolution images back to Earth. The Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) will study temperature patterns, ice, water vapor and dust in the atmosphere. And the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) will study the upper atmosphere and traces of hydrogen and oxygen further into space.
Throughout history, international collaborations like this one have given space exploration a leg up, even when political relations between nations were lukewarm. At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union embarked on the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Mission. This joint space flight became the impetus for future collaborations. And the International Space Station has notably brought together a plethora of nations including the US, Russia, Japan, many European nations and Canada.
Philip Christensen, principal investigator of the EMIRS on the Hope orbiter and professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University, says international cooperation is critical. It not only helps mitigate the challenges and expenses of Mars exploration, but it can advance our understanding of worlds beyond.
"Space has always seemed to be an area where nations could put aside their differences and realize there are ways we can work together, diffuse tensions and learn a little bit more about each other," Christensen says. "Many countries are starting to look at international partnerships as the wave of the future. This is how Mars exploration should be done."
Hope is one of three missions sent to Mars in 2020, in addition to NASA's Perseverance rover mission and China's Mars explorer. A fourth mission, the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin was expected to fly, too, but has been delayed until September 2022.
"We see a broader interest in exploration and the UAE coming up with the Hope mission is just further proof of that," says Frederic Nordlund, head of ESA's external relations department. "Exploration is very relevant for any society interested in lifting up its education, science and technological base, or reorienting its economy toward new sectors."
This mission unfolded right on schedule, but that doesn't mean there haven't been challenges along the way. The UAE is a new player in the space game, going from zero space capability to building its own satellites in just over 10 years. But an interplanetary mission like Hope is around five times more complex than Earth observation. To begin with, there are budgetary restrictions. The core cost hasn't yet been shared, but the UAE "didn't get a blank spreadsheet," Al Amiri says.
Then there are mission-specific challenges. Mars is an average of around 140 million miles away and a mission like this demands high navigational accuracy. The further you get from Earth, the harder it is to make course corrections in time. The probe also has to be highly autonomous, because once it reaches Mars, it'll take about 14 minutes for a radio signal to reach it and another 14 minutes for a response to be recorded.
But it'll be worth it. Mapping Mars' atmosphere, climate and the movement of gases will not only help scientists learn more about the red planet, but help us understand more about our own climate and atmosphere here on Earth, according to Al Amiri.
Hope also offers an opportunity to promote women in STEM. The mission team is 34% women, as well as 50% women in leadership roles. Al Amiri says this reflects a growing interest among women to enter the sciences and a need for the UAE to develop programs that'll allow it to achieve gender parity in STEM.
The Hope mission is just the beginning of the UAE's foray into space. The nation pledged a long-term commitment to planetary and space exploration with its plan to "establish the first inhabitable human settlement in Mars by 2117." A mission to the moon, Rashid, is also planned, with a rover set to arrive on the lunar surface in 2024. That, too, will require international collaboration.
"I would like to think that the exploration of space -- Mars and beyond -- is something that should and will be a collaborative international effort," Christensen says, "and not a competition."
Editor's note: This piece was originally part of the Welcome to Mars package, which launched in March 2020. It has been updated to coincide with the Hope probe arrival at Mars.