The United Arab Emirates has joined the ranks of just a handful of countries to successfully send a mission to the Red Planet. The UAE probe Hope successfully entered orbit on Tuesday after a 27-minute rocket burn slowed the craft enough for Mars’ gravity to capture it.
Hope is a satellite designed to study Martian weather over the short and long term, including measurements of dust storms and the ongoing loss of the Martian atmosphere to space. The spacecraft is powered by a pair of 900W solar panels and it includes a digital camera, infrared spectrometer, and an ultraviolet spectrometer to measure the upper atmosphere.
Hope will be the first satellite devoted to the study of the Martian atmosphere, and the first to track its climate over the long Martian seasons. Mars has a reputation for being a barren, cold hunk of rock because that’s what it is — but unlike, say, the Moon, Mars has a genuine climate and seasons that change over the course of a Martian year. While other probes have taken measures of Mars’ atmosphere, Hope is the first vehicle dedicated specifically to that task.
The data Hope gathers may help us understand how Mars transformed from a world where liquid water flowed across its surface into the dry and barren place it is today. There is substantial evidence that the Martian atmosphere was once much thicker and capable of warming the planet via a substantial greenhouse effect. There is evidence for substantial erosion and weathering across Mars in planetary features that date to the Noachian period (4.1B – 3.7B years ago) but by the beginning of the Hesperian period, 3.7B years ago, Mars was cooling down. By 3B years ago, Mars largely resembled its current state, though there’s still evidence of local or regional flooding in specific areas after this date.
We know that the collapse of the Martian magnetic field helped the sun blow its atmosphere away and that the planet’s lower mass made it more difficult for the planet to retain an atmosphere long-term. It’s thought that periodic huge impacts could have played a role in keeping Mars warm, but the total amount of energy available on Mars has always been a fraction of that on Earth, due to its smaller size, lower percentages of radioactive materials, and the lower amount of energy Mars receives from the sun. Understanding the existing weather patterns on Mars and the interaction between the solar wind and the upper Martian atmosphere will help us better understand why Mars is still losing its hydrogen and oxygen into space.
Any serious effort to colonize Mars will require an understanding of prevailing weather patterns. Martian dust storms can become powerful enough to cloak the entire planet, making solar power useless. We’ll need to be able to predict Martian weather, at least to some extent, if we ever hope to settle there.
Feature image by MBRSC
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