TANEGASHIMA, Japan: An H-2A rocket carrying the “Hope” probe blasts off from Tanegashima Space Centre yesterday. — AFP

TOKYO: The first Arab space mission to Mars, an unmanned probe dubbed “Hope”, blasted off from Japan yesterday, in a bid to reveal more about the atmosphere of the Red Planet. The Japanese rocket carrying the probe developed by the United Arab Emirates lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan right on schedule at 6:58 am local time. The launch of the probe, known as “Al-Amal” in Arabic, had twice been delayed because of bad weather, but the liftoff yesterday appeared smooth and successful.

Almost exactly one hour later, a live feed showed people applauding in the Japanese control room as the probe successfully detached. “The launch vehicle trajectory was executed as planned and separation of the Hope spacecraft was confirmed,” rocket manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said. In Dubai, the launch was met with rapturous excitement, with the Burj Khalifa - the world’s tallest skyscraper - lit up hours before liftoff with a symbolic 10-second countdown in anticipation.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent cables of congratulations to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and to Vice President, Premier and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. In the cables, the Amir expressed sincere pride, and wished utmost prosperity for the UAE after the historic and successful launch of “Hope”, the first Arab interplanetary space mission to Mars. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent similar cables.

“This mission is an important milestone for the UAE and the region,” said Yousuf Hamad Al-Shaibani, director of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, at a post-launch press  conference in Japan. “It has already inspired millions of youth regionally to dream big and work hard to achieve what seems to be impossible,” he said.

The Emirati project is one of three racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest. In October, Mars will be a comparatively close 62.07 million km from Earth, according to NASA. “Hope” is expected to enter Mars orbit by Feb 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE, an alliance of seven emirates.

Unlike the two other Mars ventures scheduled for this year, it will not land on the Red Planet, but instead orbit it for a whole Martian year, or 687 days. While the objective of the UAE’s mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics, the probe is a foundation for a much bigger goal - building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years.

Dubai has hired architects to imagine what a Martian city might look like and build it in its desert as “Science City”, at a cost of around $135 million. The UAE also wants the project to serve as a source of inspiration for Arab youth, in a region too often wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.

On Twitter, the UAE’s government declared the probe launch a “message of pride, hope and peace to the Arab region, in which we renew the golden age of Arab and Islamic discoveries”. Several dozen probes - most of them American - have set off for the Red Planet since the 1960s. Many never made it that far, or failed to land. The drive to explore Mars flagged until the confirmation less than 10 years ago that water once flowed on its surface.

Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, has said the Hope probe will offer a special perspective on the planet. “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have an holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons,” Sharaf told a pre-launch briefing.

Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to Earth in Sept 2021, with its data available for scientists around the world to study. The UAE already has nine functioning satellites in Earth orbit, with plans to launch another eight in coming years. And in September, it sent the first Emirati into space on a mission to the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, astrophysicists yesterday published the largest-ever 3D map of the Universe, the result of an analysis of more than four million galaxies and ultra-bright, energy-packed quasars. The efforts of hundreds of scientists from around 30 institutions worldwide have yielded a “complete story of the expansion of the universe”, said Will Percival of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. In the project launched more than two decades ago, the researchers made “the most accurate expansion history measurements over the widest-ever range of cosmic time”, he said in a statement.

The map relies on the latest observations of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), titled the “extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey” (eBOSS), with data collected from an optical telescope in New Mexico over six years. The infant Universe following the Big Bang is relatively well known through extensive theoretical models and observation of cosmic microwave background - the electromagnetic radiation of the nascent cosmos. Studies of galaxies and distance measurements also contributed to a better understanding of the Universe’s expansion over billions of years.

But Kyle Dawson of the University of Utah, who unveiled the map yesterday, said the researchers tackled a “troublesome gap in the middle 11 billion years”. Through “five years of continuous observations, we have worked to fill in that gap, and we are using that information to provide some of the most substantial advances in cosmology in the last decade,” he said.

Astrophysicist Jean-Paul Kneib of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, who initiated eBOSS in 2012, said the goal was to produce “the most complete 3D map of the Universe throughout the lifetime of the Universe”. For the first time, the researchers drew on “celestial objects that indicate the distribution of matter in the distant Universe, galaxies that actively form stars and quasars”.

The map shows filaments of matter and voids that more precisely define the structure of the Universe since its beginnings, when it was only 380,000 years old. For the part of the map relating to the Universe six billion years ago, researchers observed the oldest and reddest galaxies. For more distant eras, they concentrated on the youngest galaxies - the blue ones. To go back even further, they used quasars, galaxies whose supermassive black hole is extremely luminous.

The map reveals that the expansion of the Universe began to accelerate at some point and has since continued to do so. The researchers said this seems to be due to the presence of dark energy, an invisible element that fits into Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity but whose origin is not yet understood.

Astrophysicists have known for years that the Universe is expanding, but have been unable to measure the rate of expansion with precision. Comparisons of the eBOSS observations with previous studies of the early universe have revealed discrepancies in estimates of the rate of expansion. The currently accepted rate, called the “Hubble constant”, is 10 percent slower than the value calculated from the distances between the galaxies closest to us. - Agencies