On December 2, 1971, the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander landed on the Red Planet. It was the first mission to successfully land on Mars. It transmitted partial images of Mars for less than 15 seconds before the communication stopped for unknown reasons.
As the lander was transmitting those images, another historic event was taking place in the other side of the galaxy, on our earth; the establishment of a new country on the western shores of the Arabian Gulf — the United Arab Emirates. Call it destiny, as less than five decades later this young nation would send a pioneering mission to Mars — the Hope Probe. It’s scheduled to be launched on July 15 and is set to enter Mars orbit by February 2021 to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
The race to conquer space was at its height during the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviets were the space masters those days despite the successful American landing on the moon in 1969. Decades later, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its successor Russia somehow lost interest in the extremely costly space programme, other countries joined the race.
Exploration of Mars, however, remained the ultimate goal for those countries. So far, only four countries have attempted to reach the Red Planet — the US, Russia, China and India. On July 15, the UAE will be joining this prominent club, albeit with smaller price tag than most Mars missions — under $200 million (Dh734 million).
With the relatively meagre cost aside, the Hope mission is no doubt very rich not just in scientific value but also in national and pan-Arab significance and symbols.
More than a thousand years ago, Arab and Muslim scientists were far ahead of everybody else in astronomy. The study of stars and their movements was prominent during the Arab renaissance era. Abdul Rahman Al Sufi, who died in 986AD was the leading scientist. He wrote a book which described the 48 constellations formed by what were then called the ‘fixed stars’ — the celestial objects that did not seem to move in relation to the other stars.
Reaching Mars is not only a scientific goal; it also sends a message to our future generation that we are capable, and nothing is impossible with hope.
Science was vital for the region as it served religious requirements such as the ability to determine correctly the direction of Qibla in prayers (the direction of Al Kaaba in the holy city of Makkah), and the birth of the new moon to determine the start of the Hijri months especially in Ramadan in addition to obstainng accurate timing of the sunrise and sunset, essential for prayers and fasting. These needs led numerous Arab scientists to develop the science and expand its horizons. Al Sufi was followed by such leading astronomers like Al Biruni (died in 1048), Ibn Al Haytham (died in 1039) among many others.
Unfortunately, as the region plunged into conflicts and later became an attraction for colonial ambitions such as the Ottoman’s and then the British and French, interest in science waned.
As he revealed the first blueprints of the project in 2015, one year after the announcement of the mission, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, reminded us of the historical relevance of the UAE initiative. “Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge and will play that role again.”
The mission is an important step towards reviving that civilisation. But it is also a message for the future, Sheikh Mohammed noted. “The Hope Probe represents a turning point for the Arab and Islamic world in the space sector. Reaching Mars is not only a scientific goal; it also sends a message to our future generation that we are capable, and nothing is impossible with hope.”
That is why the probe is named Hope; a name that fits its rich symbolism. “There is no future, no achievement, no life without hope,” the Vice-President said recently.
Another national significance is clear in the composition of the project team. It is a 100 per cent Emirati team — scientists, engineers, designers, technicians, and supervisors. This young nation today stands proud of its brilliant minds who achieved what many countries would not dare even think of doing. It is true that the probe will be launched from a Japanese space centre, but it will be controlled and guided by Emirati scientists from the control room in Dubai.
A first for Mars missions
Meanwhile, the critical scientific data that is expected to be gathered by the probe will be shared with the world’s scientific community. The Hope will orbit Mars in a way that has never been done before. The probe has an elliptical orbit ranging from about 20,000km at its lowest to 43,000km at its highest point. It is designed to allow UAE scientists to explore the planet’s “diurnal,” or day-to-night cycle. And that will be a first for Mars missions.
That achievement will be added to other scientific objectives of Hope — to understand the climate dynamics of Mars and the planet’s weather map and to explain the nature and movement of hydrogen and oxygen on Mars. In short, we will understand why Mars is not suitable for human habitation in order to hopefully find remedies.
As the UAE gets ready to mark the union’s Golden Jubilee Anniversary next year, it has all the reasons to be proud of achieving so many milestones in such a short time. For the UAE’s space sector, which is only a little over 15 years old, that is an incredible achievement.