UAE Joins Growing List Of Nations That Have Sent Spacecraft To Mars

It seems everyone is interested in Mars these days.

For decades, sending probes to the red planet was the exclusive purview of the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia. But in 1998, Japan made an attempt, which ended in failure, followed by the European Space Agency, then China (also unsuccessful) in 2011, and two years later, India.

Now, the United Arab Emirates has sent one, too: an orbiter named Hope. It’s the country’s first interplanetary space shot.

“The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference at Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, where the $200 million mission lifted off at 5:58 p.m. ET Sunday, riding a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket after nearly a week of weather delays.

Approximately an hour after launch, Hope, or “Amal” in Arabic, separated from its housing and deployed its solar panels. It will spend the next seven months on its journey to Mars.

“Years of hard work and dedication have paid off in a big way,” UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, said shortly after the launch during a virtual watch party. “This is a huge accomplishment, but it’s just the beginning.”

Al Otaiba said the liftoff “made me feel immense pride.”

“I think every Emirati on the face of the planet should go around feeling proud of what his country has managed to accomplish today,” he said.

The UAE hopes the mission will spur the oil-rich country’s science and technology.

The orbital probe is designed to gather comprehensive data about the thin atmosphere of Mars.

“The purpose was not only to get to Mars by 2021 and have valid scientific data coming out of the mission that is unique in nature and no other mission has captured before,” Sarah Al Amiri, deputy project manager and science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission, said earlier. “But more importantly, it was about developing the capabilities and capacity of engineers in the country.”

If it succeeds, Hope will be a technological triumph for the UAE. If it fails, however, it will at least be in good company. Half of the nearly 60 spacecraft sent to Mars since 1960 have been failures – either complete losses, or “partial failures.”

As NPR’s Joe Palca reported last week, China and the U.S. are also expected to launch new Mars missions this month or early next.

Hope should reach Mars in February – in time to mark the 50th anniversary of UAE independence.

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