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Aerospace & Defense

Japan launch of UAE Mars probe is rehearsal for own 2024 mission

Mitsubishi Heavy's rockets boast above-average success rate of 98%

The UAE's Mars probe Hope is expected to blast off from Japan by Aug. 13 after weather conditions forced the scrub of the first launch date. (Photo courtesy of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre)

TOKYO -- A Mars-bound spacecraft will soon launch from Japan, part of a historic mission that, if successful, will showcase the reliability of the country's space exploration technology and serve as a springboard for its own mission in 2024.

The Hope orbiter mission is being led by the United Arab Emirates, marking the first of its kind by a Middle Eastern country. The mission also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE, a tiny oil-rich Persian Gulf nation.

The Hope was originally scheduled for takeoff on Wednesday from the Tanegashima Space Center, located on a small island about 40 km south of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands. The launch was postponed due to the heavy rain.

Although the launch has not officially been rescheduled as bad weather has so far plagued the launch window, it is expected to take place by Aug. 13.

The Hope is due to enter into Mar's orbit in February next year to analyze the Red Planet's climate and weather patterns. The probe will spend about seven months collecting data.

The UAE's Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre first ordered the H-IIA rocket from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 2016. The space center looked at candidates from Europe, Asia and other places, but chose Mitsubishi Heavy because of its records and broad capabilities, said Omran Sharaf, the mission's project director.

An H-IIA launches from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center in 2015. (Photo by Shoji Yano)

The UAE has sought to diversify its economy from oil production in recent years by pouring resources in to space exploration and other sciences. The country plans to establish a colony on Mars in the year 2117. 

This will be the 42nd launch of the H-IIA. Combined with the successor H-IIB rocket, the series has a success rate of 98%, above the international average of 95%.

The Hope mission is the fourth overseas launch contract landed by Mitsubishi Heavy, as well as the company's first Mars probe. Mitsubishi Heavy is developing the next-generation H-III rocket jointly with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

If the number of launches increases, the rockets will become cheaper to make because the volume efficiencies of mass production will produce less costly components.

Because Mars and Earth draw close to each other this summer, 2020 is having a rush of launches. Outside of the UAE, missions are being planned in the U.S. and China.

JAXA plans its own Mars exploration mission in 2024 at a cost of roughly 46 billion yen ($430 million). The project, nicknamed MMX, will launch a probe toward the Martian moon Phobos.

The mission will bring back samples and utilize the H-III rocket. Mitsubishi Electric has won the contract to build the probe system. Yamazaki Heavy Industries is developing the sample-collecting arm for the Phobos leg of the mission, as well as the capsule used for the return to Earth.

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