The first-ever Mars mission from the United Arab Emirates will arrive at the Red Planet tomorrow. It’s an orbiter that will map the Martian atmosphere and track its weather patterns, with the help of an instrument built by an Arizona team. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of the team members, Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University, about what happens next.
The spacecraft Hope will be shortly arriving at Mars. Tell me what happens next.
What happens next for Hope is that it turns on its Delta V thrusters. Basically, it needs to slow down so it can get captured into Mars’ orbit. It’ll do that for 27 minutes and slow down enough that it goes into capture orbit. It’s going to stay there for a couple of months, while we check out the spacecraft, make sure all the instruments are still healthy, and practice some science observations… and then it transitions and does some other maneuvers in that orbit to get into its final science orbit. That’ll happen in the April to May time frame.
I think we’re all familiar with the idea that landing on Mars is really difficult to do, but is it also dangerous just to go into orbit around Mars?
Yeah, Mars orbit is also hard to get into. Unlike when you’re landing on the surface, we have a box that we need to hit in space.…. A lot of things can go wrong and we can make it successfully. So that’s really good to know. But it’s still tough. A lot of spacecraft in the past have missed this, Mars Observer, there’s been a lot of challenges in the past.
Hope’s orbit is a bit different than most orbiters around Mars, right?
That’s right. Hope’s orbit is an inclined equatorial orbit. It’s a big orbit, it’s about 20,000 by 44,000 kilometers. This orbit is designed to give us a global picture of Mars. A lot of the spacecraft there today, like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, they have these really small orbits that are polar. What that means is they have a fixed local time, so they’re always observing the surface at like 3am and 3pm. Hope’s orbit is designed to give us the full picture of Mars’ day so we can measure its atmosphere and understand what the dynamics of the atmosphere are over a Martian day and not try to predict the weather from 3am and 3pm observations.
There’s quite a few spacecraft that have visited Mars by now but this is the first one sent by the United Arab Emirates. Can you talk about what it’s like to work with the international team?
This is like no other space program I have worked on before, in that, not only is there these really important driving science questions… but it also has a totally different aspect which is training and cooperation and collaboration. That’s different. You don’t really get that in a NASA mission. NASA missions are mostly about doing the science and you train students and grad students along the way. This is about helping to develop an international space program. We really worked together to learn how to build a spacecraft that can go into deep space, which is so different from going into low Earth orbit. There are so many challenges: it’s twenty minutes to get the signal back from Mars. The spacecraft has to be autonomous. It really is a challenging thing, and collaborating with our UAE partners has been a really wonderful experience not only on the scientific front, but I’ve made lasting friendships and collaborations that I think are going to last a lifetime.
How are you feeling now that arrival day is almost here?
A little nervous. It’s hard to spend so much of your time thinking about things, working on things, and not be a little bit nervous for this. Although I do have a lot of confidence in our engineering team’s ability to get us into orbit. I will say that the instruments through cruise were working really well, we’re really excited to see them turn on after Mars orbit insertion and get some data, so it’s a mix of nervousness and excitement, I would say.
Christopher Edwards, thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me.