A United Arab Emirates spacecraft has swung into orbit around Mars in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
Ground controllers at the UAE’s space centre in Dubai rose to their feet and broke into applause when word came that the craft, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, had reached the end of its seven-month, (482 million-kilometre) journey and had begun circling the red planet, where it will gather data on Mars’ atmosphere.
The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes on Tuesday in an intricate, high-stakes manoeuvre that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars’ gravity. It took a nail-biting 11 minutes for the signal confirming success to reach Earth.
A visibly relieved Omran Sharaf, the mission’s director, declared, “To the people of the UAE and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the UAE reaching Mars.”
Two more unmanned spacecraft from the US and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars during 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 that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission.
An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control and said: “Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE. … Your joy is indescribable.”
A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday (local time). It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the US named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing February 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long US-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harboured microscopic life.
If all goes as planned, Amal during the next two months will settle into an exceptionally high, elliptical orbit of 22,000km to 44,000km, from which it will survey the planet’s mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.
It joins six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three US, two European and one Indian.