The UAE is launching the first Arab mission to planet Mars this week with a 100 per cent Arab-made space probe that will orbit the far planet and be able to send back unprecedented data to earth early next year. The Hope Space Probe, to be launched from a base in Japan, will mark a milestone in Emirati and Arab space exploration efforts, and it is the first step in the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) leading to anticipated human settlement on Mars in 2117. The UAE government is now mulling involvement in future Moon missions.
The project was launched in 2014 to mark the Golden anniversary of the establishment of the UAE union of eight emirates in 1971. The gulf country started acquiring space technology more than a decade ago when it had its first satellite launched into earth orbit. That was made by South Korea in 2009. Since then, a small group of Emirati specialists started work, benefiting from cooperation with South Koreans, Americans and others, until the first fully Emirati-built satellite — Khalifa Sat — was launched in 2018. Last year, the first Arab astronaut travelling to the International Space Station was Emirati Hazza Al-Mansouri.
Though critics at the time claimed that UAE was “buying its way into space”, the results now prove the opposite. Actually, it is part of diversifying the economy beyond oil, according to the country’s leadership decision in 2013 to start preparing for the future.
Investment in space technology is a new trend in the Emirates, and the Mohamed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai is now the launching pad for a creative sector in a dynamic economy. In a short period of time, MBRSC’s staff has risen from 70 to more than 200, and the centre regularly sends researchers abroad on exchanges as well as hosting undergraduate research interns. EMM will be run and controlled mainly by Emiratis.
The UAE, and Dubai in particular, is used to venturing into what look to be weird things, only in the end to prove successes. The space probe cost an estimated $200 million to build, but the UAE has been investing more over the last two decades: introducing basic sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry) and aviation engineering along with advanced communication technology and astronomy in main universities. It also nurtured and supported research, encouraging scores of citizens to become scholars in these fields.
UAE spending on research and development (R&D) is the highest in the region. Allocation for R&D increased from 0.5 per cent of the country’s GDP to 1.5 per cent in a few years. It is coming closer to the average in the most advanced countries where R&D is between two and three per cent of GDP. The average in the Arab world is just 0.5 per cent.
That’s why, Omran Sharaf, EMM project manager, said that the Mars space mission would lead to a “more competitive” Arab world economy and a stronger integration with global society, as the mission would inspire the region to be more innovative, creative and knowledge-based.
Like other ventures before, not the least turning the hot deserts of Dubai and UAE into a tourist destination for tens of millions from around the world, benefits of investing in the space industry will be reaped in due time.
The EMM project manager assured, “You cannot measure it today or tomorrow; you will see it in 10 or 15 years…The Hope Probe would serve humanity in many different ways, especially by sharing data openly without any restrictions with more than 200 institutions across the world.”
This will be the first time the global space community has access to direct data from space with no restrictions whatsoever. Hope Probe is not just a technology demonstrator, but once it arrives at the red planet in February 2021, the orbiter will produce the first global map of the Martian atmosphere.
“Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on developing the space sector is not a waste of money in these tight circumstances,” a Dubai-based business analyst said, adding: “It’s a long-term strategy that will pay off like other ventures the UAE undertook decades ago.”
Emiratis will celebrate national day next year with pride in their country reaching out to Mars, with sceptics still questioning the rationale behind investing in space while life on earth is getting harder. It will take time for some to realise the wisdom behind the move, which will come when they see the results.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly