UAE shoots for Mars in Arab world’s first space mission

The first ever probe to make a soft landing on Mars touched down the same day in 1971 that the United Arab Emirates was formed.

Now almost half a century after the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander, the wealthy emirate is aiming to send its own satellite — the Arab world’s first — into orbit around the red planet in time for its golden anniversary.

“Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said of the mission that is set to blast off on July 14. “Set no limits to your ambitions and you can reach even to space,” he added.

The $200m project to launch the probe — named Al Amal, or “hope” — is the culmination of six years of work by Emirati and US scientists. It is part of a broader $5.4bn investment in the emerging space industry that it is hoped will spur development in an economy hit by the oil price crash and the coronavirus pandemic.

Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, has struggled to shed the hydrocarbon dependence that underpins the Arab federation. Dubai, the region’s commercial centre, is particularly exposed to the downturn because of a reliance on trade, travel and tourism.

“This has created opportunities for scientists,” Sarah Al Amiri, the mission’s science lead and UAE minister of state for advanced sciences, said of the project. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project director, added: “We want to inspire the UAE and the Arab youth to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”

A rising number of Emiratis, especially women, are moving into science and engineering © AFP/Getty

A team of 75 Emiratis are working on the mission along with American universities, including the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the orbiter was built. Eight of the Emirati team of 10 scientists are women. Ms Al Amiri said the Mars project was an inspiration for the rising number of Emiratis, especially women, who were moving into science and engineering.

The project was almost derailed as the threat of lockdowns prompted the early dispatch of the craft — via air, land and sea — to the launch site off the southern tip of Japan. “We rejigged our planning to prepare for worst-case scenarios. There was a real risk that, after six years of work, we could end up missing our launch window,” said Mr Sharaf. On the Soviet mission five decades ago, the Mars lander stopped transmission within seconds. 

Yet with the two teams now in place in Dubai and Japan, the final steps are under way. After blasting out of the earth’s atmosphere, the craft will deploy solar panels to power its seven-month journey at 121,000km an hour, reaching Mars by February 2021.

Women walk past an illustration depicting an astronaut with the Emirati national flag outside Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre © Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty

The mission’s scientific goals are to monitor the planet’s weather dynamics and to correlate that with climate change and loss of atmosphere in the Martian environment. But the broader aim remains to cement the economic move into new advanced sectors.

“We need our mindset to shift away from services, oil and tourism to one based on science and technology,” said Ms Al Amiri, adding that the virus had only highlighted the necessity for change. “This pandemic proves we need to diversify our efforts,” she added.

Still, with businesses in the UAE complaining about limited government support as they struggle to cope with the pandemic, some worry about the economic cost for what could turn out to be a vanity project.

“I think it is a genuine attempt to contribute positive scientific knowledge, obviously with a bit of prestige for added measure,” said Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at RUSI, the defence and security think-tank. “Whether that will translate into Emiratis themselves understanding and innovating is another matter.”