From Dubai to Mars, With Stops in Colorado and Japan

BOULDER, Colo. — In December, a spacecraft named Hope was motionless in the middle of a large clean room on the campus of the University of Colorado, mounted securely on a stand.

But engineers were tricking Hope — a foil-wrapped box about the size and weight of a Mini Cooper — into thinking it was speeding at more than 10,000 miles per hour as it pulled into orbit at Mars. It was a simulation to make sure that the guidance, navigation and control systems would respond correctly to a variety of less-than-perfect circumstances when it arrives at Mars for real next year.

While this spacecraft was assembled on American soil, it will not be exploring the red planet for NASA. Hope is instead an effort by the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich country smaller than the state of Maine and one that has never sent anything out into the solar system.

Emirati engineers worked here, close to the ski slopes of the Rocky Mountains and far from the sands of the Middle East, learning from their American counterparts. It was part of the Emirates’ planning for the future when petroleum no longer flows as bountifully, to invest its current wealth in new “knowledge-based” industries.

“How do you develop highly skilled people that are able to take on higher risks?” said Sarah al-Amiri, the minister of state for advanced sciences for the U.A.E., who also leads the science portion of the Mars mission. “That was the reason to go to space exploration.”

As a newcomer, the U.A.E. has taken a novel approach. It could have tried to do everything itself, developing homegrown technology similar to what India has done. That would have taken years longer. Alternatively, it could have bought someone else’s spacecraft design, which would have been the quickest path.

Instead, the country has sought partners with long experience in sending machines into space. This, its space team believed, would help avoid many of the pitfalls of trying to pull off such missions for the first time, while training future engineers who will be expected to step up to bigger roles in the next mission. In the process, the country’s leaders hope to sow seeds for future companies.

“The government really wanted to create that ecosystem or at least help in creating that ecosystem,” said Omran Sharaf, the project manager for the Emirates’ Mars mission. “Soon. They want to accelerate the process. Don’t start from scratch. Work with others. Take it to the next level now.”

Last year, for a nascent astronaut program, the Emirates bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket. They sent Hazzaa al-Mansoori for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station.

Hope will be just one of a flotilla of robotic spacecraft scheduled to launch this summer during a once-in-26-months alignment of Earth and Mars that enables a relatively short trip of some 300 million miles and seven months to the red planet.

The other three will be the products of established space powers: NASA, China and a collaboration between Russia and the European Space Agency.

Compared with those, Hope is modest in size and scope, with costs fitting into what managers described as a “tight budget.” While the other missions each aim to put a rover on the surface, the Emirati spacecraft will make observations from orbit.

Still, it will be more than just a technical triumph.

“We were requested to send a spacecraft to Mars, but not send space junk, basically,” Ms. al-Amiri said. “Send a spacecraft that not only captures an image of the planet to declare you’re there, but actually provides you with valuable scientific data.”

In September 2014, India celebrated putting a spacecraft in orbit around Mars and boasted how its price tag was a fraction of that for MAVEN, a NASA probe that arrived two days earlier. Both are still there.

But the Indian spacecraft did not have scientific instruments sensitive enough to make significant discoveries. By contrast, MAVEN has determined how quickly the Martian atmosphere is being stripped away by the solar wind: about four pounds a second. This information is an important clue in the puzzle of understanding why early Mars, which was warmer and wetter, turned into the cold, barren, almost airless place it is today.

Hope’s aim is to fill in a gap in MAVEN’s findings by looking at the dynamics closer to the ground that influence the rate of leaking.

“You need to understand the role that Mars plays in the loss of its atmosphere,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

When a planet-wide dust storm raged on Mars in the summer of 2018, MAVEN observed that the amount of hydrogen in the upper atmosphere rose. The three instruments on Hope — an infrared spectrometer, an ultraviolet spectrometer and a camera — would be able to help explain how the dust pushed the hydrogen upward.

In addition, from its high-altitude perch — an elliptical orbit that varies from 12,400 miles to 27,000 miles above the surface — Hope will give scientists a global view of Martian weather, noting changes in temperature and other conditions during the course of a day.

“That’s one of the fundamental new measurements we haven’t seen before,” said Bruce M. Jakosky, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado who is MAVEN’s principal investigator and a member of the science team for the Emirati mission.

Previous orbiters have generally swooped much closer to the Martian surface, usually in orbits devised to pass over a given location at the same time of day each time. That was more useful for detecting slow changes on the surface rather than in the air.

“I think the atmosphere has been understudied,” said Philip R. Christensen, a planetary sciences professor at Arizona State University, which built the infrared spectrometer for Hope. That instrument will capture data on the dust particles and ice clouds and track the movement of water vapor and heat through the atmosphere.

The spacecraft is to spend at least two years in orbit, monitoring a full cycle of Martian seasons.

“I think we’re going to learn a tremendous amount,” Dr. Christensen said.

Hope will be a well-traveled vehicle even before it heads to space in July.

Until Monday, it had never been anywhere near the United Arab Emirates. That day, the finished spacecraft landed in Dubai, after a 7,800-mile trip from Denver inside a Russian-built Antonov cargo plane.

After another round of testing in Dubai, one of the seven city-states that make up the U.A.E. federation, the spacecraft will take another long plane trip, to Japan, for the rocket launch to leave Earth.

The Emirati Mars strategy replicates what the country did in the 2000s when the Dubai government wanted to build its own earth observation satellites. For that project, Dubai turned to a South Korean satellite manufacturer.

The first product of the collaboration, DubaiSat-1, was built in South Korea, with Emirati engineers spending months there, essentially learning as apprentices. It launched in 2009 on a Russian rocket. The 400-pound satellite’s camera has been used for urban planning, disaster relief and environmental monitoring.

Its second satellite, DubaiSat-2, included a sharper camera and a faster communications system. It was also built in South Korea, but the work was split more as an equal partnership between the Emirati and South Korean engineers. A third satellite, KhalifaSat, was the first to be developed and built in the U.A.E.

At the time of the launch of DubaiSat-2 in November 2013, Emirati leaders were brainstorming more ambitious space projects.

Ms. al-Amiri said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the U.A.E., asked if it might be feasible to send a spacecraft to Mars.

To date, only NASA, the European Space Agency, India and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s have successfully sent probes to Mars.

Mr. Sharaf, who was then a deputy program manager for DubaiSat-2, said after couple of weeks of study that a Mars mission seemed plausible. “We think it’s something we should look into more,” he recalled telling higher officials.

A few weeks later, Sheikh Mohammed visited the space center now named after him. “Basically what he told us was that ‘I want us to reach Mars before the second of December 2021,’ which is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the U.A.E.,” Mr. Sharaf said. “He really wanted to inspire Emirati youth and accelerate them going into sciences.”

Mr. Sharaf said Sheikh Mohammed also wanted to offer inspiration for youth in the wider Arab world. “That’s why he called the spacecraft Hope,” Mr. Sharaf said.

Emirati officials, including Mr. Sharaf and Ms. al-Amiri, started reaching out to space organizations around the world, including the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a research institute at the University of Colorado that has been working on space missions for more than half a century.

They visited Colorado in the spring of 2014, quizzing laboratory officials about what kind of scientific investigation might be worthwhile to pursue at Mars.

The laboratory submitted a winning proposal. Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley were given roles in developing and building the spacecraft’s instruments.

The federal U.A.E. space agency, which is financing the mission, was created in 2014. The space center in Dubai is in charge of its construction and operation of the spacecraft. (It is as if California established a space program first and the United States set up NASA later.)

For the University of Colorado, a collaboration with the Emirates is not free of controversy. While the U.A.E. is often considered more progressive and open than many of its neighbors, it supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, a civil war that has killed thousands of people, before mostly pulling out last year. The country has also jailed political dissidents.

Daniel N. Baker, the laboratory director, said that officials from the university, Colorado and even NASA, supported the project. “From my point of view, the criteria that we apply is we like to have like-minded people, people who are driven by excellence,” Dr. Baker said.

Engineers from the U.A.E., some who worked in South Korea on the satellites and some who were right out of college, started arriving in Colorado. Two teams — an Emirati group led by Mr. Sharaf, and one from Colorado led by Peter Withnell — worked side-by-side.

The mission is a stretch for the Colorado laboratory as well; it is the largest spacecraft it has ever built. In the past, it had mostly built scientific instruments for missions rather than the spacecraft itself.

Sending a spacecraft to Mars poses bigger challenges than putting a satellite in Earth orbit. Radio communications now have to travel millions of miles, not a few hundred, and are blocked periodically by the sun or Mars. The spacecraft will have to take care of itself for stretches of time.

The Emirati team is much younger — 90 percent of them are under 35 — than its American counterparts. “When I started I was 30,” Mr. Sharaf said.

A third of them are women, a high percentage in an engineering field that has often been dominated by men. For the Emirati science team that will be studying the Mars data, the percentage of women is even higher: 80 percent. Until an effort to recruit men, the science team was entirely women.

Mr. Withnell, with a head of white hair and 25 years of experience at the laboratory, said he was impressed by his younger teammates. “The enthusiasm, the drive, is palpable,” he said. “I would hire any of these people in an instant.”

That includes Mohsen al-Awadhi who, six years ago, was working as a maintenance engineer for Emirates, the Dubai-based airline. “I knew almost nothing about space,” he recalled.

But when he saw a job posting at the space center, “I just randomly sent my C.V. to them about this job,” he said. “I got a job offer, and I was not even intending to leave the airline.”

He was asked to move to Colorado in 2015 to work on Hope as a systems engineer. He and his wife moved. “For a deep space mission, this is the first for the region, not just for the country,” Mr. al-Awadhi said. “It was like an honor.”

While working full-time on the Mars mission, he also completed a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

Another challenge for a country like the U.A.E. undertaking a planetary science mission: a lack of planetary scientists.

Project leaders decided to convert some engineers like Hoor al-Maazmi into apprentice scientists.

When she was in college, Ms. al-Maazmi was interested in nuclear and mechanical engineering, not space research. “It wasn’t that much of a dream for me, because it wasn’t really possible,” she said.

Now, she is using computer models to predict what Hope might see when data starts arriving next year, and she intends to pursue a doctoral degree in planetary science.

Hope will not be the last Emirati planetary mission.

“It’s not a one-off,” Ms. al-Amiri said. “It was never a one-off project. It’s one that is meant to develop a space sector, one that is meant to also spill over, once the mission successful, into other sectors.”

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