Hope Mars probe is headed for the red planet after picture-perfect launch

The first Arab interplanetary mission reached its transfer orbit and deployed its solar panels. It's now on its way to Mars.

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A history-making launch for the UAE.

Hope Mars Mission

The United Arab Emirates has taken a historic first step to interplanetary exploration, with the launch of the Arab world's first mission to Mars. The Hope, or Al Amal, spacecraft departed Earth from Tanegashima, Japan, with an assist from a Mitsubishi rocket booster on Sunday, shortly before 3 p.m PT.

As with all rocket launches, it started with a countdown. But like many aspects of the mission, the countdown was also history-making. The final 10 seconds prior to launch were broadcast in Arabic for the first time. The mission was not without its hiccups earlier in the week, when weather in Japan forced the launch to be delayed twice. And a bigger issue plagued the development of Hope: the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic hovered over the mission.

"The pandemic was not something we had in the program," Fahad Al Mehri, executive director of the space sector at the UAE space agency, said during a live broadcast. "It's not something we could engineer ourselves around."  

But the pandemic became but a lingering thought and the skies cleared for launch on Sunday. At 2:58 p.m. PT/1:58 a.m. UAE time Monday, the Mitsubishi rocket booster made its picture-perfect departure from the Tanegashima Space Center.

"Just before the launch, there was pin drop silence," Faraz Javed, a reporter at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said during a live broadcast. "Once the rocket took off there were cheers, there was joy -- I actually even saw people crying." 

The rocket punched through the blue to the upper layers of the atmosphere, and the first stage boosters separated cleanly. At around 3:55 p.m. PT, the Hope probe separated from the Mitsubishi rocket booster to light applause from the launch center in Japan. The separation placed the car-sized probe into a transfer orbit that will now carry it around 500 million kilometers (310 million miles) to the red planet.

Provided the journey is a smooth one, the probe will arrive at Mars in about seven months and, shortly after, begin its first observations.

The spacecraft is destined to take up residence in Mars orbit to "study the dynamics in the Martian atmosphere on a global scale, and on both diurnal and seasonal timescales," according to the UAE Space Agency's Emirates Mars Mission website. The probe is also equipped to take high-resolution photos of the red planet.

While large agencies like NASA, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos tend to hog the limelight, the UAE Space Agency is helping show that there's room for smaller programs to make a mark on space exploration. 

Hope is one of several missions aiming to launch within a window of opportunity when Earth and Mars are in optimal positions in relation to each other. NASA hopes to follow suit with its Perseverance rover at the end of July, while China is also set to send off its own orbiter and rover in the Tianwen-1 mission later this month.

If these missions move ahead as scheduled, then it will be a busy February for Mars watchers. Hope has the distinction of being the first of the three to start the epic journey.

Watch this: Escape to Mars: How you'll get there and where you'll live