UAE Mars Mission: Why study the Red Planet?

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Dubai: Aside from the UAE’s Hope Probe, two more Mars missions are expected to rendezvous with the Red Planet this month.

Hope Probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission, will be the first to reach Mars on February 9 at 7.42pm (UAE time), to be followed by China’s Tianwen-1 dual orbiter-rover on February 10, while Perseverance rover by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) will make a landing attempt in an area on Mars on February 18.

All three Mars missions were launched in July last year and each has its own mission to explore the Red Planet.

Omran Sharaf Project Director Emirates Mars Mission, during the first media briefing with the Probe’s team at MBRSC in Dubai on February 2.
Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

But why do we need to study our neighbouring planet Mars?

Other than our own Earth, Mars is the most explored planet in our solar system. Several missions have been sent to Mars and humans have been looking for answers to these fundamental questions: Did Mars once have life on it? What is the climate history of Mars? How did Mars evolve from its original state? Should Mars be the next destination for humans?

  • Did Mars once have life on it?
  • What is the climate history of Mars?
  • How did Mars evolve from its original state?
  • Should Mars be the next destination for humans?

As a planetary orbiter, Hope Probe is expected to collect more than one terabyte (1,000GB) of new data, which will be shared with more than 200 academic and scientific institutions around the world for free. Hope Probe, with its three scientific instruments, will map a complete portrait of the Martian atmosphere and evaluate its seasonal and daily changes.

UAE Mars Mission

By studying the connection between current Martian weather and the ancient climate of the Red Planet, scientists will have deeper insights into the past and future of the Earth as well as the potential for human settlement on Mars and other planetary objects.

Scientists will understand the weather and learn how Mars lost some of its atmosphere over billions of years of its planetary history. Substantial geophysical evidence suggests that Mars was once a much warmer and more humid world, with a lot of liquid water on its surface that could have been optimal for some form of life to evolve.

Comparing Mars with Earth weather

But before talking about colonising the Red Planet and considering it for human habitat, there is an immediate reason for exploring Mars and that is to have a more comprehensive understanding of Earth’s weather.

In a recent interview with Gulf News, Maryam Yousuf, Hope Probe Science data analyst, said: “Our goal is to study the diurnal (daily) data and investigate the atmosphere of Mars, which has never been done before. Studying Mars atmosphere will help us understand the atmosphere of other planets and provide a more comprehensive understanding of Earth’s weather.”

“Having day-to-night coverage of Mars atmosphere will give us advantage of knowing what happened to Mars’ ancient wet environment which has now become dry. We will also observe Mars weather phenomena, including its massive dust storms and compare these with dust storms here on Earth,” Yousuf explained.

She added the data that will be collected by Hope Probe will provide scientists a deeper understanding of climate dynamics and also shed light on how energy and particles, like oxygen and hydrogen, have moved through the atmosphere and escaped Mars. This can be applied to understand the future of Earth.

Evidence of life on Mars?

In a forum late last year organised by the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park), where NASA scientists and UAE engineers discussed why and how humans can get to Mars, Dr James Green, chief scientist at NASA, said the various Mars missions would look for evidence of past life on Mars.

He noted Mars has water in underground aquifers and frozen glaciers. “It used to be a blue planet (like Earth) and its water may be down to only 13 per cent of what it used to have, but it is a wonderful resource to explore the planet,” he added.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal

Green also explained one promising indication of life on Mars is that every summer, the planet gets grassy and the amount of methane gas present at the surface increases dramatically. The Curiosity Rover on Mars also detected molecular oxygen, which increases each spring and summer by up to 30 per cent before dropping again in the fall. “That tells us life may be underground during the summer — the soils heat and therefore loosen up such that the methane can leak out. We have all kinds of circumstantial observations that perhaps Mars has microbial life too,” he continued.

Inspiring the youth

For the Emirati engineers, scientists and analysts who are part of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), reaching Mars is about moving and inspiring the youth. Omran Sharaf, EMM Project Director, said the space project is not just about reaching Mars – there’s much more to it. Hope Probe’s success will create a disruptive change and a positive impact at home that will inspire not just the Emirati but the entire Arab youth.

During a press conference at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) one week before Hope Probe’s expected meet-up with Mars, Sharaf said Hope Probe will not only make history as the first Arab interplanetary mission to reach Mars, the spacecraft will also be a showcase of the growing UAE space programme and Emirati design and engineering.

He noted the system, design and programme for Hope Probe’s deep space operation are all Emirati-made, “in line with the directive from the UAE leadership to build and not to buy”.

Hope Probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission, will reach Mars on February 9 at 7.42pm (UAE time).
Image Credit: Screengrab

Global cooperation

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chair of the UAE Space Agency, said in previous interviews Hope Probe mission has not only spurred a burgeoning scientific awakening in the UAE, it has also demonstrated the country’s commitment to global cooperation on space exploration.

She said: “The UAE Mars mission opens new scientific horizons and turns the UAE into a knowledge-exporting country instead of an importer of knowledge, sharing with the world for the first time, unprecedented data that will be captured by Hope Probe.

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