TOKYO: A United Arab Emirates spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre on Monday at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

The liftoff of the Mars orbiter named Amal, or Hope, starts a rush to fly to Earth’s neighbour that is scheduled to be followed in the next few days by China and the United States.

At the space centre in Dubai, people watching were transfixed by the liftoff, then cheered and clapped, with one woman with offering a celebratory cry common for weddings.

Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Centre aboard a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket on time at 6:58am (2158 GMT Sunday) after being delayed five days by bad weather.

Mitsubishi later said the probe successfully separated from the rocket and was now on its solo journey to Mars.

The probe was sending signals that would be analyzed later but everything appeared good for now, Omran Sharaf, the UAE Mars mission director, told journalists in Dubai about an hour and a half after liftoff.

Amal is set to reach Mars in February 2021, the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. In September that year, Amal will start transmitting Martian atmospheric data, which will be made available to the international scientific community, Sharaf said.

The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and well continue developing our space exploration programme, UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima.

At Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, Emirati men in their traditional white kandora robes and women in their black abayas watched the liftoff.

As its stages separated, a cheer went out from men seated on the floor. They began clapping, one using his face mask, worn due to the coronavirus pandemic, to wipe away a tear.

A newcomer in space development, the UAE has successfully put three Earth observation satellites into orbit. Two were developed by South Korea and launched by Russia, and a third its own was launched by Japan.

A successful mission to Mars would be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a future in space, coming less than a year after the launch of the first UAE astronaut, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2020

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