The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in a major accomplishment for the Arab world and its first mission to another planet.
The UAE’s Amal spacecraft, which means “Hope” in Arabic, entered orbit around the Red Planet on Tuesday, some seven months after it first blasted off from Earth.
Ground crews in Dubai waited with nervous excitement as the spacecraft manoeuvred itself into Mars’ orbit, knowing that a mistake would likely lead to the loss of the pricey probe. The craft went through a tricky 27-minute cycle to enter orbit, and it took an additional 11 minutes for news of the success to beam back to Earth.
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Mission director Omran Sharaf finally breathed a sigh of relief after the manoeuvre was complete.
“To the people of the UAE and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the UAE reaching Mars,” he said.
Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was also thrilled to see things go smoothly.
“Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE,” he said. “Your joy is indescribable.”
It was the UAE’s first-ever mission to reach beyond Earth’s orbit, and the whole operation captured people’s imaginations across the country. Many landmarks were lit up to cheer on the probe, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower.
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“Today you have households of every single age group passionate about space, understanding a lot of science,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the UAE’s space agency. “This has opened a broad range of possibilities for everyone in the UAE and also, I truly hope, within the Arab world.”
The Amal mission was by no means a sure thing, as many other high-priced probes have failed to reach the Red Planet in one piece. Only about 40 per cent of all Mars missions actually succeed, while others fall apart at various stages of the complex journey — either en route, in orbit, during descent through the atmosphere or upon touching the surface.
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“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” al-Amiri said.
Amal will travel in high orbit around Mars and gather detailed data about its atmosphere over the next two months.
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The UAE is now one of only five space agencies to reach Mars with a functional spacecraft. Amal will share space around the planet with three U.S. probes, two European spacecraft and one from India.
The UAE’s spacecraft is the first of three slated to reach Mars in quick succession this month. Mars and Earth are particularly close in their orbits for a two-week stretch, so the UAE, China and the United States used the window to launch their missions across a slightly shorter distance last July.
China is scheduled to arrive at Mars with its combination orbiter and lander on Wednesday. The orbiter will circle the planet while the lander breaks off and heads down to the surface to search for signs of ancient Martian life — if all goes according to plan. If the lander is successful, China will become just the second nation to touch down on the Martian surface.
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NASA’s Perseverance rover will join the probe party late next week for a scheduled landing on Feb. 18. The rover is part of a joint U.S.-European operation to bring a Mars rock back to Earth for analysis, in the hope that it will reveal something about Mars’ potentially life-supporting history.
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The U.S. has successfully landed eight missions on Mars over the last 45 years.
The oil-rich UAE has moved swiftly to catch up to the U.S. and other space-faring nations in recent years. It enlisted several U.S.-based academics to help build the US$200 million Amal probe in Colorado, before shipping it to Japan for launch last July.
The UAE also sent its first astronaut into space in 2019 aboard a Russian capsule bound for the International Space Station.
The mission to Mars is the farthest yet that a UAE project has ever gone.
“Today is the start of a new chapter in Arab history … of trust in our capability to compete with other nations and people,” tweeted Sheikh Mohammed after the probe entered orbit.
“The UAE will celebrate its Golden Jubilee with science, culture and inspiration because we aim to build a model of development.”
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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