February is a big month in terms of Mars exploration, and it gets started Tuesday with a crucial moment in what AFP calls the first Arab space mission. A probe launched by the United Arab Emirates from Japan in July is on track to reach the planet's orbit at 10:30am Eastern, reports CNN. The Hope probe will have to pull off a complex maneuver that involves slowing from about 75,000mph to about 11,000mph in the final half-hour of its flight, and the UAE is inviting people to track progress at its space agency's website. If all goes well, the probe will not land on the planet but will instead circle the equator and begin providing what New Scientist describes as an unprecedented look at Mars' atmosphere. The mission is expected to last about two years.
The UAE is hoping to become the fifth entity to successfully reach Mars, after NASA, the former Soviet Union, India, and the European Space Agency. However, another nation is expected to join the list on Wednesday: China also launched a probe in July, and its Tianwen-1 mission is intended to both orbit and land on the planet. Meanwhile, NASA's Perseverance rover—also launched in July—is expected to reach the planet on Feb. 18. There's no guarantee of success for any of the missions. "Less than half of the spacecraft that have been sent to Mars have actually made it successfully," Pete Withnell of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics tells CNN. He adds, however, that "this is a highly practiced, highly simulated, and highly analyzed event, (and) I cannot imagine being better prepared than we are right now." (Read more space exploration stories.)