The summer race to land a space probe on Mars is off to a hot start, with the United Arab Emirates announcing that its mission is on time and on budget.
“With a voice that will make history, the Hope Probe to Mars will be launched with the first Arabic Countdown ever,” the Dubai Media office tweeted on Thursday.“Our voice will echo our ancestors’ legacy. This voice will make history with the first Arabic countdown,” said a video released by the Mars Probe team.
Currently, three countries have sent missions — the UAE’s Hope Probe, China’s Tianwen-1 and the US’s Mars 2020 — hoping to take advantage of the brief period of time when the Earth and Mars are nearest: a mere 55 million kilometres (34 million miles) apart.
The neighbouring planets only come this close once every 26 months — a narrow “launch window” based on their relative positions in space.
The UAE’s mission to Mars will help pave the way for exploring other planets in the future, experts said.
The mission also plans to send rovers to the Red Planet to look for additional signs of past life and potentially pave the way to — someday — step foot on its surface.
The UAE has spent $200 million on the Hope Probe, from its conception to its design, construction and launch.
Similar missions to the Red Planet were far more costly, with NASA’s Maven orbiter, sent to Mars in 2013, costing $671 million.
“The UAE government was adamant in finding a relatively low mission cost and at the same time completing in a shorter time,” Sarah al-Ameri, president of the UAE Space Agency and deputy project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) said.
Ameri said the EMM had been given a strict budget by the Emirati government and a timeline of just six years to complete the Hope Probe’s launch.
“To be able to meet those two constraints – the budget and timeline – we re-looked at how to design such missions and reduce design complexity,” Ameri said.
The UAE’s Hope Probe — the first interplanetary mission by an Arab country — launches on July 15.
The drive to explore Mars flagged until confirmation less than 10 years ago that water once flowed on its surface.
“It’s the only planet where we’ve been able to detect past signs of life, and the more we learn about it more hope there is,” Michel Viso, an astrobiologist at CNES, France’s space agency, said.
“It feels like something exciting is happening, and people want to be a part of it,” he said.
The UAE is thinking even longer term.
The Arab Gulf country plans to establish a “science city” on Earth that will reproduce Mars’s atmospheric conditions, with the goal of establishing a human colony on the Red Planet around 2117.
Supporting human life on Mars presents a number of logistical challenges.
Today’s Mars is basically an immense, icy desert. About 3.5 billion years ago, it lost the dense atmospheric pressure that protected it from cosmic radiation.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether the planet was ever inhabited by metabolic life forms.
“Four billion years ago, the conditions on the planet’s surface were very close to those which we had on Earth when life first appeared,” including liquid water and a dense atmosphere, said Jorge Vago, the spokesperson for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars initiative.