KT Exclusive: Omran Sharaf recalls challenges and surprises as UAE's Mars Probe marks first anniversary in orbit

Since Probe's MOI, the spacecraft has circled the Red Planet over 170 times in this one year



Omran Sharaf, director of the Emirates Mars Mission. Photo: WAM
Omran Sharaf, director of the Emirates Mars Mission. Photo: WAM
by

Nandini Sircar

Published: Mon 14 Feb 2022, 5:42 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Feb 2022, 10:46 PM

Reminiscing the cheers that erupted on February 9, 2021, with the success of the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) at 19:42 UAE time, Omran Sharaf, the man at the helm of this space journey, opens up on how the journey was filled with challenges, accomplishments, and pleasant surprises for the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) team.

"The stress is much less, but the challenges are still there", highlights Omran Sharaf, director of the EMM, as he reflects on the milestone achievements and the impediments during an exclusive interview to Khaleej Times, in the backdrop of the UAE's Mars probe recently marking the first anniversary in orbit.

Building UAE's story and its achievements on Mars

"Time flies; it feels like yesterday. Reaching the Martian Planet was just halfway through the journey; we had to meet the deadline given to us by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of having some significant science contribution before December 2, 2021.

"The path was filled with challenges but also with good achievements. We tried maintaining the momentum while making sure that we continued building the story of the UAE and its achievements on Mars," says the man looking back, who is known for maintaining his composure even under the most stressful times.

File
File

"It's the first time that we operated a system in deep space, and the operational cost is very different than what we are used to doing."

Hope Probe's successful entry into Mars' orbit meant a historic achievement not just for the UAE but for the entire Arab world.

Since Probe's MOI, the spacecraft has circled the Red Planet over 170 times in this one year.

It has also sent a treasure trove of scientific data, unprecedented observations, and unique images.

Sharaf underlines, "We are used to Earth Orbiting Missions. The cost of such operations is very different than the cost of the deep space missions where you launch a spacecraft that travels from Earth to a different planet and the spacecraft is exposed to different environments and then the spacecraft reaches Mars.

"There is a transition happening from the capture to the science orbit. So, there were a lot of new ways to which we had to adapt compared to what we had done before."

Al Amal successfully reached the Red Planet last February, completing one of the most complex and intricate stages of its mission, after a 493 million kilometre, seven-month journey through space.

"The way our spacecraft team or our engineers had to engage with the operations team has been different from the previous missions. The way the scientists are involved in operating the mission and telling the operators what to do and when to do, such experiences have been unique to us. Adapting to such novel ways has been a great learning experience but had its own challenges too. But the team adapted very well to it."

Shedding light on how the autonomous spacecraft has made several key new observations of the Martian atmospheric phenomena, Sharaf adds, "We have gathered over 300GB of unique Martian observations, from the two tranches for the whole international scientific community which is quite significant. The unique observation that we had about the discreet aurora has never been seen this way before. The data collected by the EMM changed the understanding of the oxygen and the carbon monoxide structure in the Martian atmosphere – that was quite significant. All that happened before December 2, 2021, and the team is now releasing the new set of data.

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Apart from the mission's mandate to expand the understanding of the Red planet, Sharaf says, "the leadership also made it clear to us that the momentum of the impact shouldn't stop. This is one thing that the team has been trying to do. So, creating the impact just didn't stop at reaching Mars.

"We can see how the universities are getting more engaged with the mission, and the new mission that was announced by the UAE government also stemmed from the success of the Emirates Mars Mission.

"Efforts are constantly being made to expedite the capacities in these areas. Different government entities and the private sector have been meeting with the team and holding seminars and workshops to understand how such a mission of this scale was delivered despite multiple constraints. We are trying to share that knowledge and the mission already has a ripple effect through different sectors in the UAE."

Sharaf: EMM was about inspiring Emirati youth while new mission aims at bolstering UAE-based start-ups

Noting that the UAE space ecosystem has become rife for private players, especially after the success of the EMM, Sharaf points out,

"Before the EMM, there wasn't much engagement of the UAE's private sector in the space missions, but it is happening now. Other missions are engaging with the industries and the private sectors in the UAE based on the lessons learnt from the EMM. The new mission on Venus and the main asteroid belt is based on the EMM's platform.

"But a big pillar here is the UAE's private sector and the Emirati or the UAE-based start-ups. The EMM was about inspiring the Emirati and the Arab youth; the new mission is about Emirati start-ups and UAE-based start-ups. To build a competitive knowledge-based economy, you need to have the private sector to have the capacity-building ability to compete not just regionally but internationally."

Contemplation on possibilities of mission extension to begin soon

Sharaf further explains the spacecraft has been performing as per plan and is on track with the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre's (MBRSC) schedule.

The Probe that is scheduled to continue its scientific mission to explore Mars until the middle of 2023 has the possibility of an extension for an additional Martian year (two Earth years).

"Hopefully, we will have the answers to all our scientific quests by the end of our second year in science orbit. As for the extended mission and its objectives, what we will be doing depends on the answers to the main questions. It depends on what we see and how much of new questions we come up with. Based on that, we repurpose the mission.

"So, the work about thinking on what should be considered for the extended mission will begin very soon. It's also based on the data that is available. So, the more data we collect, the clearer it becomes for us to understand what are the potential areas that we can explore in the extended mission," added Sharaf.


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