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1st United Arab Emirates Space Mission Will Send Probe To Mars


There are three missions headed to Mars this month, NASA has one, China has one. And tomorrow, the United Arab Emirates will send its first probe to Mars. It's supposed to arrive next year. The UAE's mission is as much about changing life on Earth as it is about exploring the red planet. NPR's Joe Palca explains.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: 2021 is a big year for the UAE. Sarah Al Amiri is deputy project manager and science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission.

SARAH AL AMIRI: The UAE was established on December 2, 1971.

PALCA: Making 2021 the country's 50th birthday. So the Emirati leadership was eager to do something to celebrate and a mission to Mars seemed just the ticket. But Al Amiri says there was more to the decision.

AL AMIRI: The purpose was not only to get to Mars by 2021 and have valid scientific data coming out of the mission that is unique in nature and no other mission has captured before, but more importantly, it was about developing the capabilities and capacity of engineers in the country.

PALCA: Al Amiri says the Emirate's leadership has been pushing the country to develop more of a knowledge-based economy. Building a Mars probe provided a focus for expanding the country's technological capabilities. Omran Sharaf is project director for the Mars mission. He says the country's engineers weren't building a spacecraft from scratch.

OMRAN SHARAF: The government wanted us to be smart about it? They said, don't start from scratch. Start from where others ended.

PALCA: So they did. The Emirates Mars Mission is no toy. It weighs around a ton and a half and is about the size of a small car.

SHARAF: So when you have the solar panels deployed, it's going to be about eight meters in width and, in height, about three meters.

PALCA: That's 24 feet wide and nine feet tall for those who don't speak metric. When it gets to Mars, it will go into an unusual orbit that will take it over essentially every point on Mars once a week. Science lead Sarah Al Amiri says that gives it a valuable perspective of the whole planet over time.

AL AMIRI: It's providing us with full understanding of the changes of the weather of Mars throughout an entire Martian day and throughout all the seasons of Mars throughout an entire Martian year, which lasts, roughly, two Earth years.

PALCA: Collaborating on the mission is a team of scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder. David Brain is the core science team lead. He says the probe does fulfill the goal of collecting data about Mars no other spacecraft has provided.

DAVID BRAIN: The three instruments that are on the spacecraft will help us measure the atmosphere of Mars from the surface all the way to space, which hasn't really been done before with other missions.

PALCA: The Emirates Mars Mission is scheduled to launch from Japan on a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket. The COVID-19 epidemic has complicated launch preparations. And I was curious what effect the pandemic was having on David Brain and the other project scientists.

Usually, a week away from launch, people are starting to get pretty excited. Have you been feeling that? Or is it too weird to think about a Mars mission when there are other things top of mind?

BRAIN: No. The excitement is palpable, I would say, and maybe even heightened by the fact that we're all in our own homes right now and can't be together.

PALCA: The launch will be webcast. So everybody from Colorado to Japan to the UAE can watch together. Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOO'S "LONGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.