Emirates Launch First Mars Probe with Help from UC Berkeley

The Emirates Mars Mission Hope Spacecraft prior to shipment to Dubai and the Tanegashima Launch site, with fully deployed solar panels and instruments visible (facing the floor) measuring nearly 5 meters across. (Credit: MBRSC/Ken Hutchison)

by Robert Sanders
UC Berkeley

At 2:58 p.m. PDT today (Sunday, July 19), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) successfully launched an interplanetary probe — the first by any country in the Arab world — thanks, in part, to science collaboration, training and instrument components provided by the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL).

The Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope Probe is scheduled to arrive at Mars in February 2021 and spend two years orbiting the “red planet,” providing an unprecedented global view of the Martian atmosphere. It will also give scientists greater insight into how our Earth may have evolved and enable greatly improved weather forecasting to help support future human missions to Mars.

The mission is led by Emirati engineers and scientists, with significant sharing of expertise and technical knowledge by colleagues at UC Berkeley and three other U.S. institutions — the University of Colorado at Boulder, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University — jump-starting an interplanetary space program in a nation that, until now, had produced only Earth observation satellites. The Hope Probe was launched from a site on Tanegashima, an island in Japan, aboard a Japanese H-IIA rocket.

An hour and a half after launch, the solar panels deployed and the probe was officially on its way to Mars. “The launch has been a success,” said a relieved Robert Lillis, SSL associate director for planetary science and the UC Berkeley lead for the Mars mission, who monitored the launch from California.

In the five years before launch, SSL hosted 10 undergraduate students — five women and five men — for a summer research experience in space science in which they analyzed data and simulations of the Martian upper atmosphere. The SSL also provided mentorship in master’s degree-level research via weekly Skype meetings with Emirati engineers as part of the mission’s Science Apprentices Program. The SSL scientists also visited UAE universities and girls’ and boys’ schools, many in rural/desert regions, to encourage interest in science.

Space scientist Robert Lillis traveled to the United Arab Emirates to meet with elementary, high school and college students to encourage them to study science. (Credit: Robert Lillis)

“With the Mars mission, the Emirates is trying to inspire young people to go into technical fields, as part of a larger vision for a post-oil world,” Lillis said. “The government has invested heavily in education, especially women’s education, to lay the groundwork for a future in which entrepreneurs, inventors and ideas — not oil — are funding their economy.”

Overall, about one-third of the 150 Emirati scientists and engineers on the mission team are women, while women make up about 80% of the science team, according to a recent article in the New York Times. The team’s average age is 27.

“Working on this unique international partnership has been such a rewarding experience,” Lillis said. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the drive, professionalism, curiosity and ambition of the UAE team; not only their excellent engineers, but the several science apprentices and summer undergraduate interns we have had the privilege of working with at Berkeley these last five summers.”

An eye-opening experience

One of the students Lillis and his SSL team worked with was Maryam Al Hosani, now a senior  majoring in computer engineering in the UAE at the American University of Sharjah, in the emirate of Sharjah.

Maryam Al Hosani, a student from the United Arab Emirates, embraced many American pursuits, including baseball. Here she is at an SF Giants game several years ago. (Credit: Maryam Al Hosani)

“My experience as part of the REU program at UC Berkeley was insightful, educational and, most importantly, memorable,” she wrote in an email. “I learnt so much about the many tools and databases used in studying the Martian atmosphere and the data collection techniques used in planetary science. One of the many things I enjoyed in California were the conversations I had with the people I met there. The diversity in culture, beliefs and ideologies was truly eye-opening.”

Al Hosani’s work at SSL contributed to the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS), one of three instruments aboard the Hope Probe. It was a collaboration between SSL and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado.

“The UAE team set out to inspire Emirati youth,” said Sasha Courtade, an SSL systems engineer. “In doing so, they’ve also inspired those of us who had the pleasure of collaborating with them. The team started with an ambitious goal and aggressive timeline to launch and remained optimistic and dedicated every step of the way.”

During Khalid Al Awar’s summer as a student doing research at SSL, he analyzed data from two instruments onboard the MAVEN space probe currently orbiting Mars with instruments built at SSL. The MAVEN, like the Hope Probe, is helping scientists understand the evolution of the thin atmosphere of Mars, which may once have had a thicker atmosphere and perhaps flowing water.

Former UC Berkeley summer intern Khalid Al Awar in the UAE’s traditional white dishdasha. (Credit: Khalid Al Awar)

“The efforts serve a more holistic purpose of understanding why gas is escaping the Mars atmosphere and how this has affected its climate evolution,” Al Awar wrote in an email. “Beyond desk work, I got to observe how space is a collaborative journey between scientists and engineers from different cultures and backgrounds, all aimed towards the betterment of mankind and unlocking new possibilities. It became very clear to me that space agencies from all over the world collaborate with each other and share more openly than any other field I have seen.”

Al Awar, who graduated in 2017 from Khalifa University, is currently working as business development lead at Astrolabs, a capability building academy and network of collaborative coworking communities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Other summer interns came from United Arab Emirates University; American University of Sharjah; Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi; and the Abu Dhabi campuses of both Paris-Sorbonne University and New York University (NYU).

‘Hope’ for Arab world

The spacecraft, which is about the size of a small car with two solar panels, was built and tested at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in collaboration with Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The mission, which cost several hundred million dollars, was named Hope (“al amal” in Arabic) to send a message of optimism to millions of young Arabs, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai for whom MBRSC is named.

The EMUS instrument (codeveloped by SSL) will provide a unique view of the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere, Lillis said. These upper layers are known as the thermosphere — the region between 100 and 200 kilometers’ altitude, where particles still collide frequently with each other — and the exosphere, a region above 200 kilometers where collisions are rare and particles can escape Mars’ gravity. The EMUS will track how matter and energy move within and between these regions, monitoring key gases like oxygen, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe took off at 2:58 p.m. PDT on July 19 from a launch site in Japan, headed for Mars to study its atmosphere. (Credit: MHI Launch Services via YouTube)

Such data are necessary to understand how the connections within and between the upper and lower atmospheres drive atmospheric escape. This escape has helped to shape Mars’ evolution from a warm, episodically wet world in the ancient past to the cold, dry planet we see today. Unique to Hope is its orbit, which enables near-complete daily and geographic coverage, providing a weather-satellite style view of all layers of the Martian atmosphere from the surface to space.

In addition to EMUS, the Hope orbiter includes a multi-band camera, the Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI), and an infrared spectrometer, the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS). The EXI is capable of taking high resolution images and will measure properties of water, ice, dust, aerosols and ozone in Mars’ atmosphere. It was developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in collaboration with MBRSC. The EMIRS will provide a unique view of the lower and middle atmosphere of the planet, measuring the distribution of dust particles and ice clouds, while tracking the movement of water vapor and heat through the atmosphere. It was developed at Arizona State University, in collaboration with MBRSC.