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

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The Hope probe has three main objectives, the first is to understand the lower Martian atmosphere and its weather and climate. Yousuf continues, “The second objective is to correlate the lower atmosphere conditions with the upper atmosphere to explain how weather changes the escape of hydrogen and oxygen. And the final objective that we have is to understand the structure and variability of hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere and why Mars is losing them into space.”

The focus on space for the UAE comes at an important time as mapping Mars will contribute to the work of not just the knowledge economy of the UAE, but advance science for the whole world. “The UAE is basically investing in space, as investing in the space sector means investing in the human capital towards a better future for all,” says Yousuf.

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. And this is Business Lab. The show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Our topic today is the Emirates Mars Mission, also known as the Hope Probe. Hope aims to be the first probe to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers. The data collected by Hope will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year.

Two words for you, space data.

My guest today is Maryam Yousuf, who is a data analyst for the Emirates Mars Mission.

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

Welcome, Maryam.

Maryam: Hi, Laurel. Thank you for having me.

Laurel: To begin with, I want to congratulate you and your team. The United Arab Emirates is the fifth country in history to reach Mars and only the seventh in the world to reach the orbit of another planet. And to top it all off, the performance of the spacecraft is exceeding expectations. What does this mean for the UAE? And what kind of impact is it having on the UAE’s aspiring scientists?

Maryam: Thank you for the congratulations. And it’s for everyone, I think, having this mission to go to Mars and get the unique data that we have. Hope Probe is the vision of the late founder of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, where he envisioned the UAE leading in the sector one day. One of the predominant project goals is developing the science and technology sectors within the UAE, in terms of capacity building and forging new pathways for the younger generations in research and development in the natural sciences domains, as they lay the foundation for any space exploration initiative in the future.

Laurel: That is very inspiring. The UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center with the international Mars science community is defining the objectives for the mission. What are those objectives and how will they further international goals to understand Mars?

Maryam: The Emirates Mars Mission will be the first mission to provide the full global picture of the Martian atmosphere. So three scientific objectives. The first objective is to characterize the Martian lower atmosphere to understand the climate dynamic and the global weather map. The second objective is to correlate the lower atmosphere conditions with the upper atmosphere to explain how weather changes the escape of hydrogen and oxygen. And the final objective that we have is to understand the structure and variability of hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere and why Mars is losing them into space.

Laurel: No small feats. These are big goals, for sure. Hope aims to provide the first comprehensive picture of Mars’ climate and atmosphere. 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? How does it actually collect it?

Maryam: We have three instruments on board of Hope Probe. Two are studying the lower atmosphere and one is 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 will capture high resolution images of Mars, which is 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. All this is basically the ultraviolet bands.

The second instrument, which is the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer or EMIRS, collects its data from the lower atmosphere. It is an interferometric thermal infrared spectrometer that will give a better understanding of the energy balance in the current Martian climate by characterizing the state of the lower atmosphere and the processes that are driving the global circulation. It’ll measure both the surface and the atmospheric temperatures, as well as the optical depths of water ice, and dust, and the abundance of water vapor. All of this will be measured from 6 to 40 plus micrometers.

For the upper atmosphere, we have the final instrument, which is the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer, which is EMUS. It is a far ultraviolet spectrometer that will measure oxygen and carbon monoxide and the thermosphere, and then it will measure the variability of the hydrogen and oxygen and the upper atmosphere.

Laurel: That absolutely is comprehensive. It will have a really good idea of a map of Mars from everything, from the surface to the atmosphere.

Maryam: Yeah.

Laurel: As a data analyst on the Mars Probe, what is your job like? How do you analyze so much data, and what are you looking for?

Maryam: For me personally, I only use EMIRS data for now. I basically study the impact of varying atmosphere conditions to the lower atmosphere on the out thermo-physical properties, on the Martian surface. And the thermo-physical properties are the properties that affect the energy budget itself.

All the instruments that we have on board of the Hope Probe are built on heritage data, which means we built the instruments based on the instruments used during previous Mars missions. When it comes to EMIRS specifically, we can use data from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES), which was on board of the Mars Global Surveyor and before the launch and so on, I used to build my code and models using TES data. Now I basically use EMIRS instead of TES.

Laurel: That’s pretty exciting. You came to the mission itself as a recent graduate with a background in biomedical engineering and now you’re exploring space data from Mars. How have you been able to use your own analytic skills to make that transition?

Maryam: It was very challenging, but I like to challenge myself, and I like to seize any opportunity that is presented to me. So when this opportunity was there, I was like, why not? Because everything that we need to know, we can learn it from experts or we can learn it online. I challenged myself by learning programming, which is Python language, through online courses and online sources available that we can get our hands on. And then when it comes to the science, the space science in particular, the Emirates Mars mission was built on a knowledge transfer program. So we have experts from the United States that monitor the project that we’re working on. So, I have mentors that teach me about all this amazing space science that relates to Mars as well.

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. But Mars, billions of years ago, had a very similar atmosphere to earth. It had a warm, wet, and thick atmosphere that was capable of accommodating life. Now it’s basically dry, cold, and it has a very thin atmosphere. When we understand the evolution and what’s currently happening to Mars that might aid us in answering questions like, what happened and what could happen to our own planet. So yeah, I can’t really pinpoint the correlation between both the planets, but exploring other planets might help us in understanding our own planet.

Laurel: That’s a very good point for clarification. Thank you. The Emirates Mars Mission is unique, in that the troves of data collected by Hope are being released to the public. 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 this important to the Mission, that all of the data be available at this scale?

Maryam: As a team, we have our objectives and hypothesis that we want to achieve or confirm. And when we share the data with everyone, they add on their knowledge and perspective to our current understanding. This contributes to a more knowledge-based economy and fosters the science community’s capabilities as a collective. This step was taken to encourage the science community to break the barriers and work together for the greater good.

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 do you think it means to do this in such a collaborative way?

Maryam: A lot of things come from this. If we talk about the UAE community itself, we do a lot of outreach activities here, and we get approached by the youth and even researchers within the UAE that have used the data itself for their own projects or research. So that’s one of the program objectives is basically to encourage more people to be involved in the STEM fields and so on. Another thing is when we go to conferences and other people will come to us and they basically want to collaborate, and they want to make a connection between their own projects and our projects and basically the objectives or whatever we’re seeing with the data. For example, maybe they had a hypothesis about it and they want to confirm it through our data because we have such unique data. So that’s really exciting. And the more we see people are into using our data, we basically want to produce the data as soon as we can.

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. Both BepiColombo and Hope instruments were facing each other, so scientists took the opportunity to measure the amount of hydrogen between the two probes. What other unexpected opportunities has the mission encountered?

Maryam: Another observation that we haven’t put our mind into is basically with the EMUS instrument. The EMUS instrument is very sensitive when it comes to the EUV, the extreme ultraviolet bands. So this basically allows us to see the discrete Aurora and this is basically not from our objectives. From about 400 observations that we’ve seen, we saw discrete Aurora more than 60% of the time. And that wasn’t an expectation that we had or something any other mission has seen before. So, yeah, that was exciting for us.

Laurel: Speaking of other observations, the Hope Probe has made a number of them, right? With the Martian atmospheric phenomenon, including discrete aurora on Mars’ nightside, remarkable concentrations of oxygen and carbon monoxide, and never-before seen images of Martian dust storms. When you see this data and the images come in, which one of these, or perhaps there are other events, has caused everyone to sit up and say, “Wow, that is from Mars. No one’s ever seen that before. And we’re the first ones.”

Maryam: I’d have to speak about myself on this one. Personally, I find dust storms very fascinating. One, because I live in a country that has a tropical desert environment, which means dust storms are very common here. Every time it becomes very dusty here, I wonder if it’s the same thing that’s happening on Mars atmosphere or not. But if I speak about the team, I can tell you that we see all observations of value and impact.

Laurel: Oh, I’m sure. How is the success of Hope fueling other space exploration initiatives by the UAE? Because this has been successful, what else is possible?

Maryam: The Emirates Mars Mission is just the beginning of exploring the frontiers of space. Hope Probe is the gateway to space exploration in the UAE. So currently the UAE is working on multiple initiatives in the space sector, such as the UAE Astronaut program, which prepares Emirate astronauts for scientific space exploration missions. And the new Emirati interplanetary mission, which involves an expedition to the orbit of Venus followed by an exploration of the asteroid belt, which is beyond Mars. And then in addition, we have the Emirates Lunar Mission that is launching Rashid rover by the end of this year. So that’s really exciting for us. The UAE is basically investing in space, as investing in the space sector means investing in the human capital towards a better future for all.

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 of Business Lab. I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can find us in print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.

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