The coronavirus pandemic does not seem to be preventing the first United Arab Emirates (UAE) interplanetary probe from taking off from Japan in the second half of July, travelling across the cosmos to meet the Red Planet and reaching its orbit in early 2021, as it has been scheduled to do for more than five years. With a population of 126 million, the land of cherry blossoms has only reported 11,135 cases of coronavirus and 263 deaths, according to April 21 data from John Hopkins University. However, despite having controlled the spread of COVID-19, Tokyo authorities agreed with Abu Dhabi to bring forward the arrival of the spacecraft to the Tanegashima Space Center, from where the UAE's Al Amal Martian probe - "Hope" in Spanish - will leave for space in the launch window from July 14 to August 3.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) intends to start the launch campaign well in advance, in order to avoid unpleasant surprises and last-minute delays in the launch of the Japanese H-IIA launcher caused by a possible coronavirus outbreak.
Despite the fact that the Al Amal probe - also called Hope for its meaning in English - has been developed and manufactured mostly in the United States, the President of the UAE Space Agency, His Highness Ahmad bin Abdulla Humaid Belhoul Al Falasi, has entrusted the mission to the JAXA, which successfully launched its KhalifaSat observation satellite into orbit in October 2018.
The operation to move the spacecraft from Dubai to Tanegashima is already under way and has been kept under strict rules of confidentiality. The limited information available follows the 38th meeting of the Mars Exploration Programme Analysis Group held by teleconference from 15 to 17 April.
For several weeks now, a team of Emirati engineers has been in Japan, waiting for the arrival of the space probe. After two weeks of quarantine, they are at the Tanegashima space base, coordinating the reception of the spacecraft and the first activities for its insertion into the H-IIA rocket along with the Japanese space technicians.
The spacecraft completed environmental testing in the United States last December and was then transported to Dubai for a final set of tests, including the verification of the proper communications link between the spacecraft and the mission control center, known as EMM, an acronym for Emirates Mars Mission. Original plans called for completing those tests in May, then shipping the spacecraft to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan for final launch preparations, which was expected to last about two months.
However, concerns about the possible increased lethal effects of the pandemic on both countries have altered the schedule of activities and the move to Japanese territory has been brought forward to this week. As a result, not all of the scheduled tests have been completed, "only the critical testing," Omran Sharaf, project director for the mission said. He is also Director of the Programs Management Department at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai.
The Emirates' specialists who accompany the space probe to Japan must also remain in isolation for two weeks, as a prelude to their participation in the launch campaign. Once the quarantine is over, all of them will join the Tanegashima technicians in carrying out the final tests, filling the probe's fuel tanks and finally integrating it on board the Japanese H-IIA launcher.
"The mission is the first to Mars by the UAE, and a cornerstone of the country’s growing space ambitions", says Omran Sharaf. The spacecraft will travel through space for around 200 days to cover the 60 million kilometres that separate the Earth from the orbit of the Red Planet.
Weighing 1.5 tons at launch, it will travel at a cruising speed of 126,000 km/hr and will be placed in an orbit between 22,000 and 44,000 km above the Martian surface. From there and for two years - with the possibility of another two more - the three scientific instruments on board will obtain data to "find connections between the past and the current Martian climate and study the causes that cause Mars to lose hydrogen and oxygen," details Omran Sharaf. But they also “will be studying the relationship between the upper and lower layer of the Martian atmosphere and the escape of hydrogen and oxygen".
The purpose of the mission is twofold. Although the seven emirates that make up the Union are rich in oil, it is not lost on their authorities that the black gold will not flow permanently. That is why "we are laying the foundations to invest our current wealth in new knowledge-based industries and one of them is linked to industry and space exploration," stresses the project leader.