Renowned astronaut Dr Buzz Aldrin (right) and Dr Andrew Aldrin, Director, Buzz Aldrin Institute, participating in a panel discussion on the future of human beings on Mars, at the NYUAD in Abu Dhbai yesterday. Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The UAE can become a vital part of a space exploration coalition of nations along with new spacefaring countries like India and South Korea, renowned American astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, said in the capital on Sunday.

These ‘new kids on the block’ can join established spacefaring entities like the US, Russia, China, Europe and Japan in exploring space, getting to Mars and even beyond, Aldrin said.

“Instead of competition, countries should cooperate on a design stage and then cooperate on the operational front [to get the best use of space travel and exploration for the future],” said the astronaut who was among the first to land on the moon.

He was speaking at the Aspen Abu Dhabi Ideas Forum, held at the New York University Abu Dhabi. The two-day event saw experts from a range of fields, including health care, space and international relations, discuss their visions for the future and the challenges in getting there.

Experts at the forum highlighted how the UAE is the only country of its size to launch a space programme, calling it a ‘daring initiative’.

Aldrin, who has for long advocated a human settlement on Mars, commended the UAE’s Mars mission and settlement plans. According to him, it is possible to ‘occupy’ Mars by 2039, and one of the most important steps in such an initiative would be to launch and operate an Earth-Mars cycler, a special kind of spacecraft trajectory that encounters Earth and Mars on a regular basis. The two planets are close together in their orbit around the sun once in every 26 months.

Speaking about the UAE’s space programme, Dr Mohammad Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency, the country’s space sector regulator, said there are plans to involve a greater private sector presence in the field.

“While the private sector does not usually get involved in space exploration, it could develop the technologies we would need to get there and sustain ourselves. The government will then be able to focus on space exploration missions, especially as it sees space as being a bridge to the future,” he told Gulf News.

The UAE has so far invested about Dh20 billion in the space sector, and owns and operates six large satellites. Dr Al Ahbabi said the number of satellites was expected to double within the next few years.

“We have 600 people working in this sector, aged on average between 30 and 35 years, and half of them are Emirati. Thirty per cent of these workers are also women. It is a young and a promising field,” he said.

Asked about the UAE’s plans to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet, Dr Al Ahbabi said a strategy would soon be developed, but that the focus is currently on the country’s 2021 Hope Mars Mission. The mission aims to send an unmanned spacecraft, the Hope probe, to the planet to study the Martian atmosphere and climate.