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The United Arab Emirates just launched its first ever mission to Mars

UAE mars launch
UAE mars launch
An H2A rocket carrying Hope, a Mars orbiter developed by the United Arab Emirates, takes off from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, on July 20, 2020. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==KyodoAP

The UAE launched its Emirates Mars Mission on Monday, from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 6:58 a.m. local time (Sunday evening US Eastern Time). If the mission successfully reaches Mars, the UAE will join a very small list of nations to have gone to the Red Planet.

What’s the mission about? An orbital spacecraft named Hope will study Mars’s atmosphere and weather. There is still a lot we don't know about the planet’s lower atmosphere: rovers are not really able to study it, nor were previous orbiters optimized to see what’s going on in the lower layers. Hope is armed with a multiband camera, which will scan the atmosphere across visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, and two spectrometers (one infrared, the other ultraviolet). Together they will assess the lower atmosphere’s temperature, chemical composition, and water content, the amount of airborne dust, and the amount of hydrogen and oxygen being lost into space.

Intel for human missions: There is a particular interest around what Hope can tell us about dust storms that form on Mars. These can often grow into massive behemoths that last several weeks, blanketing the entire planet and cutting off communication with anything that’s on the surface (as one did in 2018, finally leading to the end of NASA’s Opportunity rover). Any future human activity on Mars would have to plan accordingly for dust storms, and so we need to know more about how they form and how we can anticipate their arrival.

An international endeavor: Although this is a UAE mission, it’s more appropriate to describe the whole thing as an international venture. Managed by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, the $200 million spacecraft was built alongside partner groups from the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. The UAE worked with Japan to ensure its safe launch aboard Japanese rockets. And the mission’s data will be made available free to more than 200 research institutions around the world. 

What’s next: The spacecraft will arrive at Mars in February and spend at least two years in orbit. Its mission could be extended another two years, into 2025. 

Meanwhile, the Emirates Mars mission is just one of several heading to the planet this summer—the best window for launches (when Earth begins to overtake Mars in their respective orbits) comes just once every 26 months. China’s Tianwen-1 rover will launch between July 20 and 25, while NASA’s Perseverance rover (formerly known as the Mars 2020 rover) is set to launch July 30. 

This post has been updated with more details about optimal launch windows to Mars.

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