Khaled AlShehhi, Executive Director Marketing & Communications for the UAE Government Media Office, recalls how Hope’s arrival to Mars was lived right here on Earth.
Millions of people will forever remember February 9, 2021 - a momentous day that they will celebrate as a new beginning. It marks, after all, the completion of a historic journey and the start of a new one, in more ways than one.
The star attraction of this epic adventure is Hope, the ever-so aptly named probe of the Emirates’ Mission to Mars. Launched in July 2020, it completed its 500 million-kilometre odyssey to the Red Planet seven months later, in February. This alone has been a truly remarkable achievement for the UAE and the team at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). The mission holds much promise for the local, regional, and international scientific communities. But Hope means even more than this.
Get on board
As well as boosting the UAE’s space, education, science, and technology sectors, the event is also timed to coincide with the country’s golden jubilee. This scientific feat, unique for such a young country, is tangible proof that our “Impossible Is Possible” nation brand promise is meaningful and real. The mission, lasting a full Martian year, will see the Emirates making a significant contribution to the global scientific community and to humanity, increasing the collective knowledge about the atmospheric trends on Mars. Right from the start, we wanted to involve the public, emotionally, and engage them with the amazing endeavour. This started with the history-making #FirstArabicCountdown.
Making it to Mars was in itself a massive achievement but the last step was the most challenging one. The Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) was a complex 27-minute manoeuvre during which the Hope probe would rapidly decelerate to enter a stable orbit with Mars. The stresses on the spacecraft of all engines firing at once are far beyond those at launch and it was completed with a 22-minute two-way radio delay from Earth. This required the spacecraft to be highly autonomous, as it was beyond the control of the command centre. The delicate operation, in which numerous missions in the past have failed, has a 50% success rate.
By putting the MOI into its dramatic context, we injected anticipation, apprehension even, in the mission. Instead of being merely news, Hope’s journey became exciting. In just a few weeks, we built a communications program to get the public on board, eager to follow the progress of the probe. It may have been unfolding millions of kilometres away, but we wanted the public to embrace the endeavour and share in the pride of having Arabs to Mars.
An emotional build-up
Our goal was to connect people across the country and beyond to the mission; so, we used different touchpoints and activations to engage with different target audiences, including travellers to the UAE. We started with a video to focus on hope and what it’s allowed the UAE to achieve, nine days before the arrival to Mars. The clip put the mission into a nation-building context of ground-breaking developments, all rooted in ambition and innovation.
A subsequent video dramatized the complex nature of the final step of Hope’s journey: the MOI. The Emirates Mars Mission invited people from all over the world to #HopeForHope, engage, and participate by sending their best wishes using the universal language of emojis. It is simple, the language of the future and the lingo of the digital age. The three symbols, (Palms up Together, Rocket, and Red Circle), transcend borders, faiths, and age, having the same meaning for people everywhere: “Wishing Hope well on its way to Mars”. The emojis conveyed the nation’s support in a creative and shareable way. Hundreds of Arab influencers, celebrities, brands, and key figures participated in the campaign, inspiring countless others to do the same.
Another way to build excitement and anticipation was to add an experiential layer to the activities, bringing a little bit of Mars on Earth. Unlike the launch in Japan, visible from Earth, Hope’s arrival to Mars wasn’t. We decided to intensify the buzz, surprising and exciting people in Dubai with a unique spectacle. When two mysterious and unexplained rock-like objects appeared in the night sky, people and media quickly shared the story and the marvel became a hot topic. The Red Planet’s two moons, Phobos and Deimos, were not an astronomical first on Earth but an innovative activation designed to spark widespread excitement about Hope’s arrival in Mars’ orbit. The two moons were secretly projected in the night sky using a technology never used before in the Middle East. It relied on two giant 70-meter cranes and a unique 40-meter sky projection using a holo screen to make the moons realistically visible from long distances. By sharing this stunning Mars spectacle with people on Earth, the unique initiative and its amplification in media drove huge interest in what awaited Hope, 500 million kilometer away.
Unlike many other scientific achievements, Hope’s MOI was cause for celebration. The sense of national and regional pride was vividly expressed when public and private buildings and landmarks across the UAE and the Arab world turned red for the last few days of Hope’s historic journey. The Burj Khalifa, Dubai Frame, the Museum of the Future, the Emirates Palace, the Dhayah Fort in Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah Fort and buildings in several Arab capitals are among the attractions that were bathed in red until the probe's arrival in Mars orbit.
On the day itself, air travellers arriving into any of Dubai’s airports also got a Martian experience. Their entry into the Emirate was celebrated with a unique and collectible commemorative passport stamp. While its message and design connected their arrival to the UAE with the country’s arrival to Mars, the ink it used also shared a connection with the Red Planet. The ‘Martian Ink,’ made with volcanic basalt rocks found both in the UAE’s mountains and on Mars, represented the Red Planet perfectly with its rusty hues.
The celebrations closed with the best arrival of all. Babies born in Dubai on February 9 were welcomed on Earth with a gift worth treasuring forever: a custom-made replica Emirati space suit. This was to inspire them to dream of travelling to the stars. One of the goals of the Emirates’ Mars Mission is to stimulate younger generations’ ambition and desire to follow a career in science, technology and space exploration.
What could have stayed a space event of interest to scientists and a few journalists was turned into an emotionally charged moment of pride and shared excitement. A steady stream of creative and innovative activities has built anticipation and democratized a distant feat, allowing the public to share in it. With over 12,000 local, regional, and international media reports on the Hope Probe’s arrival to Mars and 2.7 billion impressions with #ArabtoMars, topping online trends, attention was clearly sky high.
Moments like these bind a nation together. They also shed a new light on our country and propel us onto the international stage with a brand-new narrative of scientific collaboration. The MOI, a success despite the challenges, is not the end but the start of a new chapter. With ambition and resolve, we will break new ground, innovate and inspire, for the benefit of all.
To know more, follow Khaled Al Shehhi on LinkedIn and Twitter @KhaledAlShehhi