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UAE Mars Mission Reaches Mars With ASU/NAU Instrument Aboard

The United Arab Emirates today became the fifth space agency ever to place a spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

The Emirates Mars Mission orbiter carries an instrument designed by Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University that will study the planet's atmosphere in unpreceded detail for almost two Earth years.

Other instruments, and the spacecraft itself, were built by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at University of Colorado, Boulder.

The data will offer clues as to how atmospheres evolve, including our own, and will help forecast Mars weather to support future missions.

ASU's Philip Christensen developed the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) with former student Christopher Edwards, who is now an assistant professor at NAU.

"There's a lot of information about the atmospheric properties that's contained in the infrared part of the spectrum," said Christensen.

Atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor, which absorb infrared light and help atmospheres retain heat, have distinctive infrared spectra. Hope will use EMIRS and two other spectrometers to trace motions of dust, ice, water vapor and heat, and to analyze how atmospheric layers interact.

This is the seventh spectrometer Christensen has sent to space, including one aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft that has sent data from the red planet for almost two decades.

"Hopefully, if all goes well, we'll actually be able to have two instruments there that are working at the same time and can actually observe the same piece of Mars at exactly the same time," said Christensen.

Most Mars orbiters circle the planet in a sun-synchronous orbit, which means they go around the planet from pole to pole at a fixed time of day. But, like weather satellites on Earth, Hope will maintain a geostationary orbit, floating high above while the planet rotates below.

"Instead of just getting a snapshot of the atmosphere, of the weather at two in the afternoon, we can measure the temperature and the clouds and other things throughout an entire day," said Christensen.

Christensen said he was impressed with the young UAE space agency, and with its ability to develop an important and achievable scientific mission on such a well-studied planet.

"The UAE scientists said, 'Let's do something that's different and that NASA hasn't done and yet could really do some great science.' And they did that," Christensen said. 

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk from 2016 to 2024.