Arab world’s first interplanetary Mars mission will see probe orbit planet for a Martian year to study its climate

he Arab world’s first interplanetary mission, due to launch in 40 days’ time and reach the orbit of Mars in February next year, is about the survival and future of the entire Middle East, the leaders of the United Arab Emirates project have declared. 

The launch of the unmanned probe is also the latest sign that the old cartel of space exploration, once confined to the superpowers, is being broken up by new national entrants or private sector firms.

The “Hope Mars mission”, due to be launched on 15 July, has been in preparation by the United Arab Emirates since 2014, and according to the project manager, Omran Sharaf, is seen as integral to the country’s long-term economic development. “It is about the future of the UAE and our survival,” Sharaf said.Advertisement

The mission’s objective is not to land on Mars, but to orbit the planet to study the dynamics of its atmosphere over an entire Martian year (687 Earth days) and form a more complete picture of its climate. 

One aim is to find out more about what led to the planet’s atmospheric loss, including the disappearance of hydrogen and oxygen on the surface. “We are studying a planet that looks as if it was very similar to our own, but has undergone some form of change to the point it can no longer have water, one of the major building blocks of life,” the deputy project manager and minister for advanced sciences, Sarah al-Amiri, said. “For instance, if there is a major dust storm on Mars does that increase the rates of escape of hydrogen and oxygen?” 

Data will be distributed to some 200 research institutes and be complementary to the work of other missions, including Nasa’s, the UAE said.

All in all it will be a busy summer for Mars space missions. Both China and the US have missions due to launch in July, but none will be more intriguing than the UAE’s.

Given it has only existed as a country for 50 years, and until recently had a rudimentary engineering and science base, the UAE’s extraterrestrial ambition is remarkable. Nearly 50% of Mars missions end in failure, Sharaf said, and he refused to guarantee success, saying the only way to lower the odds is to test repeatedly right up to launch.

The rocket is being launched in the midst of the coronavirus, an economic recession in Dubai, a fall in oil prices, political controversy about overseas wars and a downturn in tourism – all providing ammunition to those Emiratis who want to see this as a gigantic and ill-timed vanity project by an authoritarian leadership. 

 The UAE’s leadership, meanwhile, see the project as integral to the kind of country they are trying to build, and a catalyst for creating a diversified skilled workforce ready for a post-oil economy. 

“The aim is to celebrate our 50th anniversary on 2 December 2021 with a very big message by reaching Mars,” Sharaf said. “It will be a message not just to Emirati youth, but to Arab youth. This region has more than 1 million youth. This is a region that more than 800 years ago used to be a generator of knowledge, an example of coexistence and cooperation, of people of differing faiths building the region. The moment we stopped doing that, we went backwards.”

The UAE has already launched four earth observation satellites, initially in conjunction with South Korea, and last year sent the astronaut Hazzaa al-Mansoori, its first person in space, to the International Space Station.

“For the Mars mission, the requirement all along has been that you have to build it, not buy it,” Sharaf said. The UAE has been required to look for overseas partners in the US and Japan to move from drawing board to launch pad in a record five years. It has worked with the University of Colorado, Arizona State University and the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley, California, while the rocket itself will be launched at Japan’s Tanegashima space centre. 

Amiri insists this is not a UAE project in name only, arguing Emirati scientists had to be at the heart of the project, or it would serve no purpose. Until recently, she said, a computer scientist graduating in the UAE would be largely restricted to maintaining projects developed elsewhere, but space exploration provided the opportunity to develop an indigenous culture of scientists and engineers.

“It gave us a larger appetite for risk,” she said, adding that the opportunity now existed for UAE scientists to develop the skills needed in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and agriculture. She said she was proud of the number of Emirati women working on the Mars mission.

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