Racing Against the Clock to Reach Mars
By Leila Hatoum
For over ten years, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) has been hard at work building a team of specialists in space technologies—some of whom would later oversee its space program—in collaboration with global partners, mainly from South Korea and the United States.
The UAE has “invested for 10 years in a young and ambitious team that pushed the borders of the country’s contributions internationally and today we have our eyes set on Mars,” said Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The young leader was responding to the comments that had been generated across the world when his father, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, announced UAE’s plans to send a ‘Hope Probe’ to the red planet by 2021. “It takes a special team to stand up and take on a journey most people view as irrationally risky or impossible,” he said.
Sheikh Mohammed’s announcement had been met with raised eyebrows in the region and elsewhere across the world, with many questioning the need for such a probe. Some even ridiculed the mission on social media outlets, betting the mission would fail.
“It is true that going to Mars is not an easy task,” Sheikh Mohammed had told Newsweek Middle East in October, “but it is also a message of hope to everyone in this region that we can do it.”
The space mission faces many challenges.
Sheikh Mohammed has asked his team to “build, not buy” the required technology for the probe, and own the mission; instead of copying others, the specialists should add their personalized scientific value to their work.
Though failure is not an option, it cannot be ruled out.
“We need to identify every single risk that would lead to [failure] and we need to mitigate it and in that sense, risk management is a must,” said Engineer Omran Sharaf, project manager at Emirates Mars Mission and a spokesperson at MBRSC.
“Time is of the essence and a special window of opportunity exists for its launch,” he said when describing the brief window of opportunity for the rocket’s launch, currently scheduled for July 2020.
“This is because the Earth and Mars orbit the Sun at different rates and are aligned at their closest point only once every two years. If any part of the mission is not ready in time or fails at the last minute, we will miss the deadline of reaching Mars by 2021,” he told Newsweek Middle East.
A successful mission to Mars goes beyond reaching the destination; a seven-month cruise on the planet is also on the cards. This requires a two-year period of collecting enough scientific data and providing it to the specialists to produce new data on Mars. The final challenge lies in “decommissioning the mission safely,” as there are international regulations against contaminating space.
The mission is led by an Emirati team of more than 90 trained engineers and specialists, half of whom are women. According to MBRSC officials, the number is expected to grow to approximately 150 engineers and researchers by 2020.
“The team understands well the challenges associated with this mission. We will start where others [left off] and build on the experiences and lessons learned from previous Mars missions. We intended to fill the gaps in our knowledge through working closely with our U.S. academic partners, which some of them have more than 60 years of experience in space sciences and technologies,” said director general MBRSC Yousuf Al Shaibani.
Both Sharaf and Shaibani said the data collected by the probe will be shared with everyone.
“It is not a UAE mission, it is an Arab mission and it is for the whole world,” said Sharaf, adding “we are not doing this to say: “Hey we are here.” At the end of the day we are here to perform a task that would encourage others in this region to believe that they can do the same too.”