Mapping the atmosphere on Mars can help advance science on our own planet

Mapping the atmosphere on Mars can help advance science on our own planet thumbnail
The Hope probe has three main objectives. The first is to understand the Martian atmosphere, its weather, and climate. Yousuf states, “The second objective is the correlation of the lower atmosphere conditions and the upper atmosphere to understand how weather affects the escape of hydrogen or oxygen.” The final objective is to understand the structure, variability, and reasons for Mars’ loss of hydrogen and oxygen into space

. This is an important moment for the UAE as mapping Mars will not only contribute to the knowledge economy of the UAE but also advance science for the entire world. Yousuf says that the UAE is investing in space because it believes in investing in human capital to ensure a better future for all.

This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with the UAE Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai.

Show notes and references

Meet the Emirati engineers of Hope Probe Mars Mission, Gulf News, February 10, 2021

Full transcript:

Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma. This is Business Lab. Business Lab is a show that helps business leaders understand new technologies emerging from the lab and into their marketplace.

Our topic today is the Emirates Mars Mission, also known as the Hope Probe. Hope hopes to be the first probe that provides a complete picture and analysis of the Martian atmosphere. Hope’s data will answer key questions about the Martian atmosphere and the loss in hydrogen and oxygen gases to space over the course of a Martian year.

Two words for you, space information.

Maryam Yousuf is my guest today. She is a data analyst at the Emirates Mars Mission.

This podcast is produced in association with UAE Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai.

Welcome, Maryam.

Maryam: Hi, Laurel. I am grateful for the opportunity to be with you.

Laurel: To begin with, I want to congratulate you and your team. The United Arab Emirates is the fifth nation to reach Mars in history and the seventh to orbit another planet. The spacecraft’s performance is beyond expectations. What does this mean to the UAE? What impact does this have on the UAE’s aspiring scientists and engineers?

Maryam: Thank you for the congratulations. It’s for everyone, I believe, to have this mission to Mars and receive the unique data we have. Hope Probe was the vision of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the late founder of Emirates), who envisioned the UAE as a leader in this sector. As they lay the foundation for any future space exploration, one of the main project goals is to develop the UAE’s science and technology sector. This involves building capacity and forging new pathways for younger generations in research and development in natural sciences domains.

Laurel: That is very inspiring. The UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center is working with the international Mars science community to define the objectives of the mission. What are these objectives? How will they help to further international goals for understanding Mars?

Maryam: The Emirates Mars Mission will be the first mission to provide the full global picture of the Martian atmosphere. These are the three scientific objectives. The first objective is to determine the Martian’s lower atmosphere in order to understand the climate dynamic. The second objective is to link the lower atmosphere conditions to the upper atmosphere in order to understand how weather affects the escape of hydrogen or oxygen. The final objective is to understand the structure, variability, and reasons for Mars’ loss of oxygen and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere.

Laurel: No small feats. These are huge goals. Hope hopes to provide the first comprehensive image of Mars’ atmosphere and climate. Hope’s unique 25-degree elliptical orbit enables it to collect data and high-resolution images of the planet’s atmosphere every 225 hours or 9.5 days. What data is the Hope Probe collecting and how do they do it? How does it collect it?

Maryam: We have three instruments on board of Hope Probe. Two of the instruments are for studying the lower atmosphere, and one is for studying the upper atmosphere. If we speak about those that are studying the lower atmosphere, we have the Emirates Exploration Imager or EXI, which is a digital camera that is capable of taking 12-megapixel images while maintaining the radiometric calibration needed for the detailed scientific analysis. It can capture high resolution images of Mars using the RGB. And then it will measure optical depth of water ice at the range of 305 to 335 nanometers. And it will also measure the abundance of ozone at the range of 245 to 275 nanometers. These are the ultraviolet bands.

The second instrument, the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS), collects data from the lower atmosphere. It is an interferometric thermal spectrometer. This instrument will provide a better understanding about the energy balance in the current Martian atmosphere by characterizing the lower atmosphere and the processes driving global circulation. It will measure the atmospheric and surface temperatures as well as the optical depths and abundances of water and vapor. All of this will be measured from 6 to 40 plus micrometers. For the upper atmosphere, the last instrument is the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS). It is a far ultraviolet instrument that measures oxygen, carbon monoxide, and the thermosphere. Then it will measure the variability in the hydrogen and oxygen.

Laurel: That absolutely is comprehensive. It will give you a good idea of Mars’s surface and atmosphere.

Maryam: Yeah.

Laurel: As a data analyst on the Mars Probe, what is your job like? What are your methods for analyzing so many data points and what are your goals?

Maryam: For me personally, I only use EMIRS data for now. I study the effects of different atmosphere conditions on the thermo-physical properties of the Martian surface. The thermo-physical properties are properties that affect the energy budget.

All instruments on board the Hope Probe were built using heritage data. This means that they are based on instruments from previous Mars missions. EMIRS can be built using data from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer, which was on board the Mars Global Surveyor. Before the launch, I used TES data to build my code, models, and code. I now use EMIRS rather than TES.

Laurel: That’s pretty exciting. As a recent graduate in biomedical engineering, you came to the mission as an undergraduate and now you are exploring space data from Mars. How did you manage to use your own analytical skills to make this transition?

Maryam: It was very challenging, but I like to challenge myself, and I like to seize any opportunity that is presented to me. I was excited when I saw this opportunity. We can either learn everything from experts or online. I set myself a challenge by learning Python programming through online courses and other online resources. The Emirates Mars mission was built on knowledge transfer programs. We have experts from the United States who monitor the project we’re currently working on. So I have mentors who teach me about all the amazing space science related to Mars.

Laurel: That is amazing because this data will actually help the entire planet address climate change. Correct?

Maryam: I wouldn’t say there is a known correlation between earth and Mars. However, Mars had an atmosphere very similar to earth billions of years back. It had a warm, humid, and thick atmosphere that was capable to support life. It is now essentially dry, cold, with a very thin atmosphere. Understanding the evolution of Mars and its current state will help us answer questions such as, “What happened to Mars?” and “What could happen to it?” Although I cannot pinpoint the relationship between the planets, exploring other planets might help me to understand our planet.

Laurel: That’s a very good point for clarification. Thank you. The public is able to access the data troves collected by Hope by the Emirates Mars Mission, which is a unique initiative. So that means anyone — me, our listeners, and more importantly, scientists based in more than 200 universities and research institutes globally — can go to the Mission’s website and register to access the data. Why is it important for the Mission that all data be made available at this scale?

Maryam: As a team, we have our objectives and hypothesis that we want to achieve or confirm. When we share data with everyone, they can add their perspective and knowledge to our current understanding. This fosters a knowledge-based economy and strengthens the capabilities of the science community as a whole. This was done to encourage science community members to work together and break down barriers.

Laurel: Releasing all of this data in an open way and sharing it is certainly going to be exciting to young scientists and engineers and people around the world who are perhaps looking for different kinds of data sets to experiment with. What does it mean to collaborate in this way?

Maryam: A lot of things come from this. We do a lot in outreach activities for the UAE community. We get approached by youth and researchers from the UAE who have used the data themselves for their own research or projects. That’s why one of our program objectives is to encourage more people into STEM fields. Another thing is that when we go on conferences, other people will come up to us and want to collaborate. They want to make a link between their projects and ours and the objectives or whatever data we have. Perhaps they had an idea and want to verify it with our data. That’s very exciting. We are so excited to see how many people use our data that we want to make it available as soon as possible.

Laurel: To keep that excitement going. Yeah.

Maryam: Yep.

Laurel: Before Hope even arrived at Mars, the probe was gathering valuable data. In November 2020, the European spacecraft, BepiColombo, was headed to Mercury. Scientists used the opportunity to measure hydrogen between the Hope and BepiColombo instruments, which were facing each other. What other opportunities have the mission encountered?

Maryam: Another observation that we haven’t put our mind into is basically with the EMUS instrument. The EMUS instrument is extremely sensitive to the EUV, or extreme ultraviolet bands. This allows us to see the distinct Aurora, which is not what we were trying to achieve. From about 400 observations that we’ve seen, we saw discrete Aurora more than 60% of the time. This was not something we expected or something that any other mission had seen before. That was exciting for us.

Laurel: Speaking of other observations, the Hope Probe has made a number of them, right? The Martian atmospheric phenomenon included discrete auroras on Mars’ nightside, extraordinary concentrations of carbon monoxide and never-before-seen images of Martian duststorms. You will be able to see the data and the images and decide which one, or other events, is most impressive. Nobody has ever seen anything like it before. And we’re the first ones.”

Maryam: I’d have to speak about myself on this one. Dust storms are fascinating to me personally. One, because I live near a tropical desert environment. Dust storms are quite common in this country. It gets very dusty here and I wonder if that’s the same thing as on Mars. If I talk about the team, I can assure you that we all see all observations of value or impact.

Laurel: Oh, I’m sure. How does the success of Hope fuel other space exploration initiatives by UAE? What else is possible because this mission has been so successful?

Maryam: The Emirates Mars Mission is just the beginning of exploring the frontiers of space. Hope Probe is the gateway for UAE space exploration. The UAE has multiple space-related initiatives, including the UAE Astronaut program that prepares Emirate astronauts to go on scientific space exploration missions. The Emirati interplanetary mission is a new Emirati initiative that involves an expedition to Venus’ orbit followed by exploration of the asteroid-belt, which is beyond Mars. We also have the Emirates Lunar Mission, which will launch Rashid rover before the end of the year. This is really exciting for us. The UAE is investing in space because it means investing in human capital for a better future.

Laurel: Maryam, thank you very much for joining us today on Business Lab.

Maryam: Thank you for having me.

Laurel: That was Maryam Yousef, a data analyst for the Emirates Mars Mission, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River.

That’s it for this episode. Laurel Ruma is your host. Insights is the custom publishing division at MIT Technology Review. I am the director. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us at events around the globe, in print, on the internet, and at events every year. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at This show is available wherever your podcasts are available. We hope you enjoyed this episode and will rate us and leave a review. Business Lab is a production by MIT Technology Review. Collective Next produced this episode. Thank you for listening.

This content was created by Insights. Insights is MIT Technology Review’s custom content arm. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.

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