The United Arab Emirates' first foray beyond Earth's orbit is going so smoothly that the nation's Hope Mars spacecraft will tackle some bonus observations before it reaches its destination, mission leaders have announced.
The Hope spacecraft launched in July and will arrive in orbit around the Red Planet on Feb. 9, 2021. There, it will study Mars' atmosphere and weather, observations that will help scientists understand how the planet's bubble of gas works. But after the spacecraft's first three trajectory correction maneuvers were more accurate than the mission engineers had budgeted for, the Hope team has decided to briefly split the spacecraft's focus to gather some extra science data before the probe arrives at Mars.
"This is one of the broad objectives of the mission, to provide novel science to the international community," Hessa Al Matroushi, the Hope mission's deputy project manager for science, told Space.com. "We would like to add value."
Hope's scientists and managers have known for a while that the spacecraft could potentially knock out some extra data in the later stages of its journey, which totals about 300,000 miles (500,000 kilometers). But the mission team only felt comfortable beginning to plan such bonus observations after confirming that the probe's first three steering maneuvers were accurate enough to need little fine-tuning over the second half of the journey.
"The team's been discussing it for some time but as a project director I had to put a hold on things because there are priorities," Omran Sharaf, project director for the mission, told Space.com. "The discussions were there, it was something that was always at the back of our heads."
But given the spacecraft's smooth sailing, the Hope mission is now targeting three different types of "bonus" observations to conduct before early January, when it must again focus exclusively on the complexity of safely arriving at Mars.
One of those extra observations will see the spacecraft team up with BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese mission to visit Mercury that launched in October 2018 to begin a seven-year cruise to the solar system's innermost planet.
In a carefully choreographed maneuver across a swath of the inner solar system, the two spacecraft will turn to point at each other, and both probes will measure the amount of hydrogen in the stretch of space between them, Sharaf said. Then, each spacecraft will pirouette to take the same measurement facing outward across the solar system, Al Matroushi added.
Interplanetary hydrogen is everywhere in the solar system, but one of Hope's key science goals is to measure a different type of hydrogen, that slipping away from the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft's instrument is designed with the dual sources of hydrogen in mind, but the coordinated observations with BepiColombo will help the Hope team better differentiate interplanetary hydrogen from Martian hydrogen once the spacecraft gets closer to the planet.
A second subset of these early observations will also focus on hydrogen, but this time will give Hope scientists their first look at hydrogen in Mars' exosphere, slipping away from the planet. For these observations, two instruments on the spacecraft will coordinate: while the imager photographs the planet from a distance according to previous plans, the probe's ultraviolet instrument will join it to get an earlier look at hydrogen in the planet's atmosphere.
Hope's final batch of extra observations will turn on a built-in feature of the spacecraft's star tracker, a navigational tool rather than a science instrument. That star tracker comes with a mode that allows it to track interplanetary dust, and, with the spacecraft performing so well, the Hope team decided it would be foolish not to take advantage of its full capabilities.
"As the Emirates Mars Mission team, maybe it's not our focus, however, we know that there are scientific communities around the world who this is their bread and butter," Sharaf said. "I mean, we're sending a mission to Mars with this function and we are happy and confident with its performance, so might as well turn it on."
And that's the spirit underlying the whole mission, Sharaf said. "The whole point here is to gather as much data and utilize this mission as much as possible to serve scientific objectives and humanity in general."
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