First Arab space probe set to reach Mars orbit on February 2021

The fact that the UAE will be one of the very few nations to reach Mars’s orbit will probably come as a surprise to many. The Hope probe illustrates the United Arab Emirates’s drive to become a major global space player By Nathalie Bontems “Today we announce the exact date of the arrival to Mars,” tweeted Sheikh Mohammed, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, on November 8. The ambitious Emirati leader was talking about the Hope probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission to Mars, now well on track to reach the Red Planet’s orbit on February 9, 2021 at 7.42pm (UAE time). The fact that the UAE will be one of the very few nations to reach Mars’s orbit will probably come as a surprise to many. Indeed, despite its historical contributions to science (starting with algebra, trigonometry, and astronomy), the modern Middle East is not the part of the world most associated with scientific breakthroughs, let alone space exploration. Yet, in barely six years, the small, oil-rich Gulf country has quietly put itself on the space exploration map, harnessing close collaborations with universities and space agencies around the world. Historical passion for space Although the UAE was founded less than 50 years ago, it quickly put its impressive financial resources to good use, developing massive infrastructure projects, diversifying its economy , and investing in groundbreaking technologies that allowed it to soon become one of the world’s innovation hubs. Space, and Mars exploration in particular, plays a key in this innovation-centric strategy, but it also has a deeply-rooted emotional value for Emiratis. Early on, it fascinated the country’s beloved Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who met with astronauts from several Apollo missions in the 1970s and cherished the fragment of moon rock that American president Nixon offered him in 1973. But if it’s no wonder, really, that this commitment to space carried on over the years, it actually started to materialize in 2006, when the UAE government initiated knowledge transfer programs via the newly-established Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST). Thrusters on EIAST, now the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, developed a three-step approach intended to give the UAE the full capabilities, knowledge, and facilities it needed to develop advanced satellite missions by Emirati scientists and engineers on its own soil. In less than ten years, it launched three ever more sophisticated Earth observation satellites, the latest of which, dubbed KhalifaSat after the UAE President, left Earth in 2018 and was the first fully Emirati-designed, built, and tested spacecraft. Equipped with a state-of-the-art camera that captures and beams detailed imagery of the Earth, the remote sensing observation satellite should help tackle a range of global issues, from climate change and disaster relief to urban planning. Meanwhile, the UAE Space Agency, founded in 2014 to develop the country’s very own space program, established a $27 million Space Research Centre that serves as an incubator for space research, development, and innovation. Most importantly, it also signed a flurry of cooperation agreements with, among others, the French Centre National d’études Spatiales, the UK Space Agency, and NASA. These agreements are what allowed one of the country’s most symbolic achievements to materialize: sending a UAE national to space. In 2019, Hazzaa Al Mansoori made history by becoming the first Emirati to leave Earth – a feat achieved by only two other Arab nationals, Prince Sultan Bin Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud from Saudi Arabia and Muhammed Faris from Syria, in the 1980s. The then 35-year-old former pilot was chosen from the thousands of candidates who had answered Sheikh Mohammed’s Twitter call for young Emiratis to join the UAE Astronaut Program in 2017. A whopping 4,000 people, including one third of women, had applied. Al Mansoori joined the International Space Station (ISS) on a short eight-day mission during which, among other things, he conducted experiments created by UAE school students. Only getting started Then, on June 20, 2020, the Hope probe launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre. Since, it has covered more than half of its seven-month, 480-million km journey to Mars. There, it will spend a Martian year (almost two Earth years) building the first holistic study of the Martian climate and trying to identify the reasons why the planet’s atmosphere erodes. This data will be shared freely with scientific and academic organizations around the world. The fact that Hope’s entry in Mars’s orbit will coincide with the country’s golden jubilee next year holds significant symbolic value for a country set on driving global innovation and scientific progress. After all, the UAE’s brand promise is “Impossible is Possible” and the Emirate has made significant investments to make these dreams come true: by end of 2017, it had poured more than $6 billion in its space sector and announced last September that more funds would be added, with an eye on moon exploration and the first fully Arab mission to space by 2024. However, nothing illustrates better the UAE’s space ambitions than its plan to establish the first self-sustaining habitable settlement on Mars by 2117. The country will even start researching space agriculture – and how to grow climate-resistant palm trees on Mars in particular – at the soon-to-be-established, $135 million Mars Science City. The center, covering 176,000 sqm in the desert outside of Dubai, will be fully dedicated to studying Mars colonization; architects of Bjarke Ingels Group have already designed an intriguing prototype. Clearly, no one can accuse the UAE of lacking vision, but a 2017 Sheikh Mohammed tweet summarizes the country’s posture perfectly: “Mars 2117 is a seed we are sowing today to reap the fruit of new generations led by a passion for science and advancing human knowledge.”

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