Hope probe: Minister heading UAE Mars mission recalls tense seconds before liftoff
The UAE's space programmes unite everyone, regardless of age or nationality, in its spark of wonder and amazement at humanity's final frontier.
The young team that designed the UAE's Hope probe to Mars was very conscious of the risks associated with the mission, a minister and science lead of the mission has told Khaleej Times. The probe took off from Japan's Tanegashima Space Centre on July 20 after it was postponed twice due to unstable weather conditions.
Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology, was on the ground in Tanegashima when the probe blasted off to Mars. "In the countdown to the seconds leading up to liftoff, the whole team's hearts were in their mouths. We had seen an idea become a reality, invested our days and nights in this technological marvel. And now it was going to leave us for all eternity on a journey into the cold reaches of space. It's humbling, to be honest, to stand there and watch the launcher venting puffs vapourising liquid oxygen and wait for that moment when it kicks into life."
"While it was thrilling to see the culmination of six years' work in planning, designing and building the Mars hope spacecraft, you are also very conscious of the risks. Our launch platform was extremely reliable, and yet you can't help thinking, 'What if?'," added the minister, who is also President of the UAE Space Agency.
Excerpts from the interview.
Did we sleep in the hours before launch? No!
I think it would be very difficult for anyone involved in such a historic mission to sleep the night before. We worked six years on the mission and the day that we have all been waiting for had arrived. The thrill of finally experiencing the results of years of hard work kept the entire team in a state of exhilaration and anticipation for the moments leading up to the launch. And many of the team were working, manning the consoles, testing - always testing, right until the very last second.
Two teams steering Hope: One in Japan, other in Dubai
Some team members had travelled to Tokyo early to quarantine in order to unload the probe from its transporter aircraft. A second team travelled with the probe from Dubai and they then went into quarantine as the first team managed the transfer to Tanegashima. The team then worked on testing the spacecraft's functions, including communication, navigation, remote control, as well as power and the probe propulsion systems.
Ground control at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) was set up in the weeks preceding the mission. These days you don't need huge control rooms with hundreds of screens and big display screens, you can literally control a mission using a few laptops - so a mission control room looks a lot more like an office than the impressive spectacle we saw during the early Moon missions. The mission control team manages the probe's status and controls trajectory, downloading and uploading mission data from a series of internationally based large aperture ground stations. Once the team had acquired the first signal from the probe after separation from the second stage of the launcher, we knew we were in business.
The role of the team at the MBRSC ground station in Khawaneej is to monitor the Hope probe's journey to Mars from launch to the day it enters Red Planet orbit and collect the science data through daily operations once the mission is in orbit.
An unusually young team buzzing with a lot of ideas
There's no doubt that the team is unusually young and that brings a new energy to planning and launching a mission like this. The UAE is conscious of its young population, of giving those young people the tools and resources to shape their own destinies and that is certainly shown in Emirates Mars Mission (EMM). I have no doubt it was the youth of the team that led them to challenge accepted ways of doing things, to question the most effective and efficient ways of working and to design a mission that was unique in a number of ways precisely because there were young and questioning minds at work.
There is greater appetite for risk in the Mars mission, which is a project that is five times more complex than any other space mission we have undertaken. This has allowed us to further develop our skills and to know how to address all possible challenges and potential risks, overcome them and how to make sure that we always have our target in mind.
That forward-thinking perspective was key to the mission's rapid pace of development, for instance. Young people have a particular capacity for creative problem solving, a key element of our approach towards the mission's design and engineering.
How space scientists can take off
I have always been interested in space, but there weren't any space-related majors when I entered university. Once I graduated, I joined the Emirates Institute for Advance Science and Technology (now known as MBRSC) and this is when I started getting involved in this sector.
Universities, like the American University of Sharjah and UAEU, are starting to offer more space-related programmes. The mission aims to catalyse opportunities in STEM for young people in the UAE. And these benefits are already being felt. Firstly, there is the EMM team, who have had the chance to work on cutting-edge science; and it's also worth noting that 80 per cent of the scientists and 34 per cent of the total team are women. Furthermore, 60,000 young people and teachers have been engaged in outreach programmes as part of the Mars mission. Beyond the mission itself, it is hoped that it will have spillover benefits for other sectors of the economy where science and technology are key, creating jobs and incentivising young people to pursue careers in STEM.
'Excited, humbled when I heard about the Mars mission'
The mission was announced in 2014. We first started planning the mission in late 2013. It was undoubtedly a huge challenge and my reaction was mixed ranging from excitement to a humbling sense of duty for the huge undertaking that would lie ahead, and the historical importance of this announcement for the UAE.
From a national perspective the mission is the catalyst for the UAE's diversification away from a predominantly oil-based economy. It will develop some of the capacities needed to better engage with the economic, social and geopolitical forces of the 21st century. It aims to inspire a young generation into pursuing of unfamiliar and innovative career pathways, and thereby support a diversification of its economy. So no pressure, really.
2117 Mars strategy: A 100-year interplanetary plan
A major part of achieving this goal involves understanding how humans can inhabit and sustain life on Mars' barren surface - and that means addressing issues such as food security, water supply and sustainability. The route to solving these issues for Mars also gives us critical solutions for many of the issues we face on earth, particularly in the Emirates. So the idea of a global scientific hub to start bringing people together to research these issues was an attractive one. The idea of Mars 2117 is a long-term signal of the Emirates' strategic commitment to space exploration and sciences and also of our strong desire to foster international collaborations that take humanity forward in addressing our more pressing issues and needs.
United in space
The UAE's space programmes unite everyone, regardless of age or nationality, in its spark of wonder and amazement at humanity's final frontier. The programmes have inspired the eyes and minds of our youths to turn towards the vastness of space. In doing so, we are launching the future careers of a new generation of Emirati scientists, engineers, astrophysicists, and astronauts. We will continue to reap the immeasurable rewards of this societal achievement for years to come, across all parts of our country's diverse population.
Leaders pilot UAE to new heights
Without the support of the UAE leadership, none of this would have been possible, especially considering that investing in the space sector is a high-risk investment and not all missions to space succeed. Nevertheless, our leadership has always been keen on taking risks to further the development of the country. It is due to this unrelenting commitment to forward-thinking and defying the impossible that the UAE's space programmes are able to flourish.
We will continue to build on the important work already achieved, leveraging the investment in human capital, technologies, and public awareness created thus far. This continued work will ultimately fortify our role as a as a global partner in a worldwide knowledge-sharing network, positioning the Arab world as an important contributor to the global space community.
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