The UAE’s Hope orbiter is the Arab world’s first interplanetary spacecraft — and has jump-started science in the country.emirates mars mission
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced in 2014 that it would send a mission to Mars by the country’s 50th birthday in December 2021, it looked like a bet with astronomically tough odds. At the time, the nation had no space agency and no planetary scientists, and had only recently launched its first satellite. The rapidly assembled team of engineers, with an average age of 27, frequently heard the same jibe. “You guys are a bunch of kids. How are you going to reach Mars?” says Sarah Al Amiri, originally a computer engineer and the science lead for the project.
LIVE LAUNCH here: https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae/live/
Six years on, Al Amiri beamed as she admired the country’s fully assembled Mars orbiter while it underwent tests in February. In the bright, clean room at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, engineers were testing the car-sized orbiter before shipping it to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. It will launch sometime during a three-week window starting on 15 July.
The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) will be the first interplanetary venture of any Arab nation, but it’s not just a technology demonstrator. Once it arrives at the red planet in February 2021, the orbiter, known as Hope (or Amal in Arabic), will produce the first global map of the Martian atmosphere. And, somewhat unusually for a space mission, the EMM will release its data to the international scientific community without an embargo.
Progressing from Earth-orbiting satellites to a deep-space mission in six years is “incredible”, says Brett Landin, an engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, who leads the mission’s spacecraft team. The UAE hired the US engineer in an unusual partnership in which the Colorado team provided both mentoring and construction expertise. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Landin.
But for Emiratis, space-science goals come second. Faced with economic and environmental challenges, the small, oil-rich Gulf state hopes the Mars project can accelerate its transformation into a knowledge economy — by encouraging research, degree programmes in basic sciences and inspiring the youth across the Arab states. Like major port and road ventures before it, the Mars mission is a mega-project designed to cause “a big shift in the mindset”, says Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager. The driver “is not space, it’s economic”, he says.
It is early days, but there are hints that it is working, says Al Amiri, who is also the country’s minister for advanced sciences. She has assembled a team of planetary scientists, who are ‘reprogrammed’ engineers, and the UAE’s top universities have in the past few years opened new degree courses in astronomy, physics and other basic sciences. Women make up 34% of the team (see ‘Women in Emirati science’) and 80% of the mission’s scientists. And the UAE government is now mulling involvement in future Moon missions and considering setting up the country’s first national grant-funding programme.
The UAE has a long way to go. Just a handful of its 100 or so higher-education institutions do research, and Al Amiri estimates that there are perhaps only a few hundred full-time academic researchers. Although the country has many engineers and technicians, “we’ve discovered we have a big shortage of scientists”, says Ahmad Belhoul, minister for higher education and chair of the UAE Space Agency, which was created alongside the Mars mission in 2014.
If they can pull off that economic transformation, it would be a much greater prize than getting data from Mars. Getting to Mars is important, says Al Amiri, but “how we get there is even more important”.