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The UAE’s Quest for the Red Planet

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is all geared up to join the exclusive Mars club as the first Arab mission to Mars awaits its launch within a few days. After transforming desert sands into glamourous cities, the UAE is all set to explore space.

The Emirates Mars Mission, or the Hope Mars Mission (Hope), will ferry a probe, Al-Amal, on a seven-month journey to Mars. The spacecraft is expected to reach Mars’ orbit by the end of February, overlapping with the 50th anniversary of the Emirates’ establishment.

The probe will orbit the planet and yield a comprehensive analysis of its atmospheric dynamics and the climate patterns over one complete Martian year (equivalent to 687 Earth days). Throughout its history, Mars has undergone geographic changes characterized by the disappearance of oxygen and hydrogen from the planet making it impossible for water to endure on its surface. The scientific community is keen to evaluate the underlying reasons for this change.

The Hope mission forms part of the UAE’s larger national space program. Three of UAE’s satellites continue to orbit the Earth while Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa Al-Mansoori, docked with the International Space Station last year. Furthermore, the Emirates has also chalked out a plan to develop an inhabitable city on Mars by 2117.

The initiative is a combined effort of an international consortium. Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) in Dubai, has partnered with the University of Colorado, Arizona State University, and the Space Sciences Laboratory, to materialize this initiative.

The UAE does not have a launch pad and the spacecraft was shipped to Japan in April. It was moved three weeks ahead of schedule, considering the increasing travel restrictions being imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19. The robotic craft is due to lift off from a remote Japanese island during a narrow launch window on July 15th.

The event is a vivid reflection of a notable change in the space industry. The old cartel of space exploration, once dominated by the superpowers is no longer intact as new entrants are setting their mark on space.

Over the last 60 years, only six countries have sent spacecraft to Mars. Moreover, two other missions are heading for Mars this summer, including NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover, and China’s Tianwen-1, which will set off next month. Hope appears to be the most intriguing one noting the infancy of the UAE’s space program.

The push behind Hope differs from traditional calls for space exploration. The UAE has clearly mentioned that the mission is not designed for scientific advancement solely but is part of the UAE’s broader national objectives. Omran Sharaf, Project Lead for Hope stated, “Reaching Mars is not the main objective here—this is about strengthening our economy by making it more innovative, creative and competitive.” He further added, “It’s about the post-oil economy.”

The UAE, one of the wealthiest countries on the basis of GDP per capita, is now eyeing to move beyond oil to diversify its economy. Consequently, several initiatives have been launched to strengthen its scientific and technological capabilities to push the younger generation to follow future careers in science and technology.

The mission’s outreach and engagement programs are noticeably changing perceptions about the attractiveness of science careers and have catalyzed new degree programs at five UAE universities. It has also led to the development of new research programs.

Apart from the evident incentives, missions such as Hope play their part in rekindling a sense of cultural pride which can spur the youth to devote their efforts to the national cause.

Back in 2014, when the mission was announced, neither a space agency nor a minister of science existed in the Emirates.

The mission suggests that space is becoming more accessible for those who have capital resources. The evolving dynamics of the space industry have unleashed opportunities for wealthy states to extend their ingress in space at a brisk pace.

Last month, SpaceX successfully launched two astronauts from U.S. soil. At a time when SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing are making inroads to privatizing space exploration, various states are also inclined to make their mark on space.

There are several other states in the Middle East who have the financial resources to strengthen their space capabilities. Mindful of the strained dynamics of the region, the mission has the potential to rekindle a space race between regional actors. Iran launched its first military satellite in April 2020, whereas Saudi Arabia is also reinforcing its space capabilities. Given the emerging competition in space exploration, it is evident that space will play a crucial role in the security dynamics of the region.

Noting that 50% of missions to Mars end up in failure, it is yet to be seen whether the mission succeeds or not. Either way, the initiative is a big leap forward.