A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is set to swing into orbit around Mars on Tuesday in the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
The orbiter, called Amal, Arabic for hope, has travelled nearly 500 million miles in nearly seven months to get to Mars with the goal of mapping its atmosphere through each Martian season, reports the Associated Press.
Amal is the first of a three-craft convoy from Earth arriving at the red planet in quick succession. All three spacecraft lifted off within days of one another, taking advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.
A combination orbiter and lander from China is close behind Amal, scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land on the surface in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the US named Perseverance is set to arrive next, aiming for a landing on Feb 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long US-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once was home to microscopic life.
About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing or burning up in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through the thin Martian atmosphere.
If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The US has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A Nasa rover and lander are still there working on the surface.
For the UAE, this is the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, making the flight a matter of intense national pride. The country’s first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians.
In developing Amal, the UAE chose to collaborate with the US instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. The spacecraft was assembled in Colorado, before being sent to Japan for launch last July.
Landmarks across the UAE, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, are now glowing red to mark Amal’s anticipated arrival.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, casting even more attention on the perilous mission.
Amal is expected to perform an intricate series of turns and engine firings to manoeuvre into orbit where it will join six spacecraft already orbiting the planet: three US, two European and one Indian.
“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, the chair of the UAE’s space agency.
A success would be a tremendous boost to the UAE’s space ambitions.
The UAE, a federation of seven skeikhdoms, is hoping Amal will fire up the imaginations of the country’s youth and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.
“This mission was never about just reaching Mars,” said Omran Sharaf, Amal’s project manager. “Mars is just a means to a much bigger objective.”