UAE and China place missions into Mars orbit mere hours apart

Artist’s concept of the UAE Hope spacecraft thruster firing for Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver and arriving in orbit around the Red Planet on Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: MBRSC

Arab world’s first mission to Mars achieves orbit

The Arab world’s history-making first interplanetary mission to Mars – the United Arab Emirates Hope Probe – successfully achieved orbit today, Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 10:57 a.m. ET (19:57 UAE time, 1557 GMT),” after a seven-month journey bound for the Red Planet and designed to study the planet’s weather and climate, and inspire the nations young people to study science.

Hope is the first of three missions reaching the Red Planet this month. The UAE thus commences Earth’s powerful Invasion of Mars in 2021 with an international fleet of orbiters, landers, and rovers launched from the UAE, the United States and China.

Hope’s science goal is to provide the first planet-wide picture of Mars’ weather system and climate throughout the Martian year during a two-year-long orbital mission.

The Hope spacecraft performed a crucial 27-minute-long Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) engine burn with a cluster of six Delta-V thrusters starting at 10:30 a.m. ET as the UAE Space Agency was providing live coverage and the probe entered radio blackout.

The successful outcome of the nail-biting MOI engine ignition and shutdown was not known until contact with Hope was reestablished and the signal reached Earth after the 11-minute radio delay across the vast interplanetary gulf of some 119 million miles (191 million kilometers). That is the time it presently takes for signals to reach Earth from Mars despite traveling at the speed of light.

Thus the burn was already done before the radio confirmation was received by the team eagerly awaiting the radio signal back on Earth.

“Success! Contact with #HopeProbe has been established again. The Mars Orbit Insertion is now complete,” the Hope team tweeted at 11:16 a.m. ET.

The United Arab Emirates thereby became the first Arab nation, and only the fifth nation or space agency from Earth, to safely and successfully reach the Red Planet following the United States, Soviet Union, Europe, and India.

Hope is now in its initial elliptical capture orbit ranging from about 1,000 km by 49,380 km (600 mi x 30,700 mi) above Mars as engineers now work to determine the actual orbit achieved with precision.

“MOI was the most critical and dangerous part of our journey to Mars, exposing the Hope probe to stresses and pressures it has never before faced,”  said Omran Sharaf, EMM Project Director at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, in a statement.

“While we have spent six years designing, testing and retesting the system, there is no way to fully simulate the impacts of the deceleration and navigation required to achieve MOI autonomously. With this enormous milestone achieved, we are now preparing to transition to our science orbit and commence science data gathering.”

The team will now also begin calibrating and testing its science instruments, before moving to its science orbit duration of 55 hours and ranging in altitude from 20,000 x 43,000 km.

“The science of the mission is enabled by a unique highly elliptical orbit that Hope will adopt when it starts its two-year science mission,” said Hessa Al Matroushi, Science Lead for the mission at the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, in a statement.

“The orbit offers an unprecedented local and seasonal time coverage of the Martian atmosphere. Combined with the unique instrumental synergy, Hope will explore Mars’ different atmospheric layers, revealing new and global perspective of its atmospheric behavior and connections.”

The Hope Mars Mission began with the launch on the Japanese H-2A  rocket on July 20th, 2020 at 01:58 am UAE local time, 6:58 a.m. Japan Standard Time from Launch Pad No. 1 at the Yoshinobu launch complex located at the Tanegashima Space Center.

The mission is funded by the UAE Space Agency and The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre to the tune of about $200 million.

China’s ambitious Tianwen-1 mission arrives safely in Mars orbit

The first image of Mars captured by China’s Tianwen-1 probe from a distance of 2.2 million km to the Red Planet after the probe had traveled about 197 days in space and about 465 million km, prior to orbital arrival on Feb. 10, 2021. It was 184 million km from Earth and 1.1 million km from Mars. The photo was released by the China National Space Administration on Feb. 5, 2021. Credit: CNSA

China’s first-ever mission to reach Mars successfully arrived in orbit around the Red Planet early this morning, Wednesday, Feb. 10, after a seven-month-long interplanetary journey. This marks the second leg of the arrival of an international fleet of spaceships dispatched from Earth that started less than 24 hours after the first-ever probe from an Arab nation (Hope) accomplished the same historic orbital arrival achievement yesterday, Feb. 9 and as NASA’s Perseverance rover barrels towards touchdown on Feb. 18.

The extremely ambitious Chinese Tianwen-1 robotic mission designed to orbit, land and rove on the Red Planet commenced its crucial main engine this morning at 6:52 a.m. EST, Wednesday, Feb 10 to accomplish the history-making achievement of entering polar elliptical orbit after 202 days voyage through deep space.

“China’s Tianwen-1 probe successfully entered the orbit around Mars on Wednesday after a nearly seven-month voyage from Earth,” according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA). “A 3000N [674-pound-thrust] engine was ignited at 7:52 p.m. Beijing time, 1152 GMT (6:52 a.m. EST) Wednesday, Feb. 10. to decelerate Tianwen-1.”

The 11,000-pound (5-metric ton) Tianwen-1 probe is the second of three science probes reaching the Red Planet this month. Missions from the United Arab Emirates and the United States also launched toward Mars last summer.

China becomes only the sixth nation or space agency from Earth to safely and successfully reach the Red Planet following the United States, Soviet Union, Europe, India, and as-of-yesterday the UAE.

The main engine fired for 15 minutes to slow Tianwen-1 enough to be captured by Mars’ gravity and placed the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit with its closest distance to Mars surface at about 400 km and an apogee of 180,000 km inclined by 10 degrees, and an orbital period of about 10 Earth days to complete one fly around.

Mid-flight image of China’s Mars probe Tianwen-1 taken on Oct. 1, 2020 and released by the China National Space Administration. Credit: CNSA

“The development marks China’s completion of a key step in its current Mars exploration program, which is designed to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission,” said the CNSA. “After entering the Mars orbit, payloads aboard the orbiter, including cameras and various particle analyzers, will next start working and carry out surveys of the planet.”

China’s Tianwen-1 robotic mission will comprehensively investigate the Red Planet’s climate, atmosphere, and geology and search for signatures of water as well as snapping numerous images from orbit with the orbiter and the surface from the lander and rover spacecraft.

China utilized its most powerful rocket – the relatively new heavy-lift Long March 5 – to hurl the combination Tianwen-1 orbiter and lander mission to Mars from the seaside Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province on Thursday, July 23, at 12:41 a.m. EDT (0441 GMT; 12:41 p.m. Beijing time).

Over the past seven months, Tianwen-1 carried out four trajectory orbital correction maneuvers (TCMs) and a deep-space maneuver.

Chinese engineers will now command the spacecraft to adjust its preliminary orbit, check out all systems and science instruments and take images to survey landing sites for the lander/rover components of the probe.

Tianwen-1 will now conduct multiple orbital corrections to enter a temporary Mars parking orbit, surveying potential landing sites in preparation to land in May or June. Science observations should begin in two to three months.

“China’s first Mars mission is named Tianwen-1, and aims to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission,” according to the mission team led by Wan Weixing, chief scientist of China’s Mars exploration program, in a paper just published before liftoff by the science journal Nature Astronomy. “The name means ‘questions to heaven’, taken from the name of a poem by Qu Yuan (about 340–278 BC), one of the greatest poets in ancient China.”

Wan died in May after a long illness.

The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission will study the Red Planet with a combination of orbiter and lander/rover. Credit: CNSA

The prime landing site for the 529 pound (240 kg) solar-powered rover is in Utopia Planitia. The lander/rover will descend to the surface for a soft landing using parachutes, retrorockets, and airbags – similar to NASA’s prior landers and rovers.

If all goes well, the lander will then release the rover which will drive down a pair of tracks to the Martian surface – similar to how China’s two Yutu rovers drove onto the lunar surface.

The six-wheeled rover is expected to last about three months and looks a lot like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers’ Spirit and Opportunity. Meanwhile, the orbiter should operate at least one Martian year.

Altogether there are 13 science instruments included on the Tianwen-1 mission – seven on the orbiter and six on the rover/lander including cameras, spectrometers, ground-penetrating radar

If completely successful, Tianwen-1 would signify a major technical breakthrough. Scientifically, it is the most comprehensive mission to investigate the Martian morphology, geology, mineralogy, space environment, and soil and water-ice distribution.

The Tianwen-1 mission was developed, directed, and funded by China’s national space agency – namely the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Next up for Earth’s 2021 Martian “invasion fleet” is the arrival and descent of NASA’s Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter on Feb 18.

Learn more about the exploration of Mars by reading our exclusive Mars 2020 Exploration Mission Guide.

Previous Why the International Space Station is riddled with bacteria
Next Bringing Mars rocks to Earth; scientist explains the tech, goals