Mars mission highlights UAE’s ‘limitless’ space ambitions

The United Arab Emirates will soon launch a space mission to Mars, the first such endeavour undertaken by an Arab nation. The idea is to put an unmanned module in orbit around the red planet in time for next year’s 50th anniversary of the UAE.

Despite the widespread disruption caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, officials said in mid-March that the probe was still on schedule to blast off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre in mid-July.

The so-called Hope Mission involves some 150 UAE engineers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre headquartered in Dubai. And although Hope is the UAE’s own project, space exploration is a highly collaborative sector; the country has space co-operation agreements with, among others, the US’s NASA and France’s National Centre for Space Studies. In 2016 it signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK Space Agency too, covering co-operation on space research and scientific missions.

The UAE space programme is seen as a symbol of the country’s huge transformation in the first half century of its existence. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE vice-president and ruler of Dubai, said when the programme was launched: “The UAE space project is a message to our Arab world that we have the ability to compete globally. Our main goal is to tell the world that we are able to contribute to the race of civilisations by making new scientific breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

Science, then, will be a central plank of priorities due to be announced in 2021 for the next few decades of the UAE. The country already has 10 satellites in earth orbit and last year it celebrated its first man in space when astronaut Hazza al-Mansouri was part of a three-man crew to the International Space Station.

Unsurprisingly, given the regional focus on the evolution of the energy industry, there has been a focus on climate change in the country’s space strategy. This reflects concerns that rapid increases in population and economic activity in an arid part of the world have contributed to raising emission levels and put extreme pressure on water resources.

One student-built UAE satellite is due to blast off from a Russian launch site in June to study greenhouse gas emissions above the UAE. And an overall objective of UAE satellite projects so far has been to predict the build-up of algae in Gulf waters which can threaten the operation of the many desalination plants on which the country depends.

A Bristol-based UK satellite mapping company, Proteus, worked with Abu Dhabi’s environment agency in 2014 on a project to study the emirate’s land and coastal environment.

Rebranded this year as 4 Earth Intelligence, a UK-registered company with offices in Abu Dhabi, it will use satellite intelligence to study air quality, ecology and climate change in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Climate is also a focus of the UAE’s forthcoming Mars mission. The probe will gather data to explain why Mars is losing its upper atmosphere to space. That will enable scientists to look for connections between today’s weather on Earth and the ancient climate on Mars.

The UAE is not the only country in the region looking to science, and space, in the next few years. Last year the UAE Space Agency announced the creation of the Arab Space Coordination Group that includes Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Its first project will be the launch of an observation satellite to monitor Earth’s environment and climate.

And a law drafted by the UAE Space Agency, aimed at attracting investment and regulating the sector, even looks forward to an era of space tourism and space mining within a decade. The agency has signed a memorandum of understanding with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for co-operation on potential tourism flights.

As agency director-general Mohamed Al Ahbabi has said, when it comes to space, the UAE’s ambitions are “limitless”.