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Although humans have yet to step foot on Mars, the road to the Red Planet has never been busier.
Three countries – the UAE, US and China – are embarking on missions this summer, taking advantage of the biennial window when Earth and Mars are closest together.
The Emirates Mars Mission, which aims to capture the most comprehensive picture yet of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, will be the first of the trio to lift off. With its planned July 15 launch delayed by weather conditions, it is now set to launch from Japan later this week; in doing so, it will make history as the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
“This is the golden age of space in the UAE,” explained Fatma Hussain Lootah, manager of the team’s instrument science section.
“This is the time we decided to stand out in maybe a sector nobody expected us to develop in, because it’s knowledge-based, it’s very science-based.”
The UAE’s space ambitions are part of a push for economic diversification in a country where oil dominates the economy. The sector accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s GDP last year, but the government believes that initiatives like the Emirates Mars Mission will help by encouraging students to explore new subjects.
“The UAE government wanted to inspire Emirati youth to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and wanted to use this mission as a catalyst for change in multiple sectors, which includes academic sector, industrial sector and economic sector,” said Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager.
To emphasize these intentions, the autonomous spacecraft was named “Al Amal,” which translates to “Hope” in English. The team believes this gesture will resonate beyond the UAE.
“We all know that we’re in a region that has turmoil … so when it was called the Hope probe, it was kind of a symbol of hope, not just for Emirati youth, for the youth of the entire area,” said Lootah.
“And just to give them hope that … this is a new era, this is an era where there’s going to be science. There’s going to be technology. There is going to be spacecrafts … everything is possible.”
The Arab world will watch those ambitions take flight when the probe launches from Tanegashima, Japan.
Simply making it this far was an impressive feat for the Gulf country. Most Mars missions take between 10 to 12 years to develop, according to Sharaf. But scientists at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, in Dubai, had just six years to carry out the project.
If all goes according to plan, Hope will spend an entire Martian year in orbit, or 687 days, analyzing hydrogen and oxygen levels. This data will provide unprecedented information about Mars’ atmosphere, which could help scientists better understand why the planet became uninhabitable.
But even though the probe is still seven months away from reaching Mars, Sharaf says that the project has already achieved success in the UAE.
“Since the mission was announced we’ve seen the impact of the mission at different sectors. We’ve seen universities starting science programs that they didn’t have in the past … we’ve seen undergraduate students switching majors from finance and international relations to sciences.”
“So when it comes to the vision itself, we’ve already seen the impact.”