A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Marson Tuesday in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
Mission controllers at the UAE’s space center in Dubai announced that the unmanned craft, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, reached the end of its nearly seven-month, 300-million-mile journey and began circling the red planet, where it will gather detailed data on Mars’ atmosphere.
The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes in an intricate, high-stakes maneuver that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars’ gravity.
After the engine firing, it took a nail-biting 15 minutes or so for the signal confirming success to reach Earth. Ground controllers rose their feet and broke into applause. Tensions were high: Over the years, Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of missions from various countries.
Two more unmanned spacecraft from the U.S. and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars over the next several days. All three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.
Amal’s arrival puts the UAE in a league of just five space agencies in history that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission. As the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, the flight is a point of intense pride for the oil-rich nation as it seeks a future in space.
An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control and said: “Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE for the indescribable joy of the arrival at Mars.”
About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.
A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land on the surface in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harbored microscopic life.
If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.
For the UAE, it was the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, making the flight a matter of intense national pride.