Ebrahim Hamza Al Qasimi, manager, strategic research section and Sarah Al Amiri, deputy project manager — science lead, Mars Mission. Image Credit: Abdel-Krim Kallouche/Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Over the next five years, Mars will no longer be just another planet for the UAE. The Red Planet will be an integral part of every household, making the Emirates Mars Mission every UAE resident’s affair.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced in May that the UAE would send the first Arab probe to Mars to create mankind’s first integrated model of the Martian atmosphere.

The unmanned probe will be launched in July 2020 just before the UAE’s 49th anniversary. Following an approximately 200-day journey, the probe is expected to enter Mars’ orbit in the first quarter of 2021 in time for the UAE’s 50th founding anniversary.

Five years before the 2020 launch, the team behind the mission said everything is on track.

“We’re hitting every milestone very comfortably. We’re well on schedule,” Ebrahim Al Qasimi, Deputy Project Manager, Strategic Planning, at Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), told Gulf News during a visit at the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MRSC).

The purely Emirati team has been working on the initial design phase of the probe that will continue for the next 12 months.

The team works as one even though some members are in the US while others are in the UAE. But all development will happen within the centre in Al Khawaneej come the time of the actual building of the probe.

The probe is designed as a hexagonal-section or six-sided spacecraft roughly the size and weight of a small car. It will orbit or hover around Mars for roughly two years to study the Martian atmosphere’s dynamics throughout its daily and seasonal cycles.

“Studying other planets is very important to our existence here on earth because you can’t really move forward with the evolution that’s happening into a planet [without studying it] and we’re currently living through that evolution,” Sarah Al Amiri, EMM Deputy Project Manager — Science Lead, said.

“The only way you can learn about it is to see what happened to other planets that look very similar to you. You can think of them as your siblings and you can understand their history, their evolution, and what happened to them to be able to [understand the changes happening in your planet],” Sarah said.

Around 3.8 billion to 3.5 billion years ago, Earth and Mars shared similar physical and atmospheric characteristics, according to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (Nasa). Earth then had no oxygen but was made entirely of carbon dioxide and nitrogen until photosynthetic bacteria developed on earth that produced enough oxygen to support life.

While this may sound all too “scientific” for many, it will not be for long.

“We want to make science more accessible in schools to people who are not working in this area, [to make] something that is so complex, so difficult to them into something that’s very relatable,” Sarah said.

The centre aims to do this by conducting outreach activities in schools and universities to tap students’ potential.

Al Qasimi said Emirati students have responded with so much passion and interest that they, too, are carrying out missions on their own level.

Seven American University of Sharjah students, in particular, have made their own purpose-built amateur radio satellite called Nayif-1. The device will be the first nanosatellite from the UAE to be launched into orbit in April next year.

A nanosatellite is a standardised and simplified cubic design roughly 10 cubic centimetres in size and weighs around 1kg.

“We will do a lot more [outreach activities] in the upcoming months to make the Mars Mission a part of every household and make it as simple as we can for everyone to feel the ownership of it,” Al Qasimi said.

Apart from inspiring the youth about the future of aerospace science in the UAE, the mission is also shifting perceptions and breaking stereotypes. “Everybody who comes and talks to us always thinks that we’re a front and at the back-end are tireless people working underground, some 10,000 of them procuring space systems, and we’re launching it over there. You always see that switch turning [when they interact with us],” Sarah said.

“So, if you can be instrumental and inspire people in just six months from the official announcement of the mission, you can only imagine what can happen over the next five years.”

Aptly called Hope, or Al Amal in Arabic, the probe will revive the Arab world’s historic role in contributing to human knowledge by investing in space science and in its people as early as now.

“The space craft is called Hope and hopefully it would definitely provide that for our region and it would be that bit of news that is not negative that is coming out of this region,” Al Qasimi said.

“We will keep this mission very close to the people throughout the next five years and beyond — once we get to Mars.”