Dubai: It was February 1976 and the UAE was barely five years old. With his sights set at the stars, the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, held a historic meeting in the capital with three Apollo astronauts. This meeting was to plant the seeds for the country’s ambitious space exploration programme.
Sheikh Zayed met American astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt — crew of Apollo 17 — and renowned Egyptian-American space scientist and geologist Dr. Farouq El Baz. Sheikh Zayed was presented with a model of the US Space Shuttle, which was five years away from its first mission. He was also given a piece of the Moon rock that was gathered and carried back to Earth by the Apollo 17 crew back in September 1972, less than a year after the UAE was federated on December 2, 1971.
Apollo 17 was the final moon mission of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) programme. But for the UAE, it was the start of its nascent space exploration programme.
Fast forward to present time — four decades after the historic meeting when Sheikh Zayed was seen intently studying the space shuttle — a young nation that rose from the sand dunes has become a member of the elite space exploring countries.
The UAE has sent the first Emirati in space; deployed several earth-orbiting satellites; launched the first Arab interplanetary mission to Mars; formed an astronaut corps; helped in the establishment of Arab Space Cooperation Group; and will send the smallest and lightest Emirati made rover to the moon in 2022. The UAE also aims to establish a human settlement in Mars by 2117. The UAE is also ranked among the nine countries in the world that invest in space science and its goal is to accelerate human researches in this field.
Jump-starting the space journey
In 2007, the UAE collaborated with South Korean firm Satrec Initiative to design and build its first satellites, with agreement that the company would also train young Emirati engineers. A decade later, the UAE launched its first all-Emirati made remote sensing Earth observation satellite that was designed and built at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai.
For the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), the country also took a similar approach to the earlier satellites by working with American universities, including the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, where Hope Probe was built before being sent to Dubai for testing.
A year before Hope Probe’s launch, enthusiasm for space has spread widely across the country and the Arab region when the UAE sent Hazzaa AlMansoori to the International Space Station in 2019. The first Emirati astronaut was also the first Arab to wear a kandoura in space.
AlMansoori’s successful space journey and return to Earth is a validation of the UAE Astronaut Programme, which is the first in the Arab world to have a corps of astronauts. Aside from AlMansoori, another Emirati astronaut is Sultan AlNeyadi, while Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla have been recently added to the corps of Emiratis who will embark on future space missions and serve as ambassadors for the UAE and the Arab world in space exploration.
Journey towards the future
The milestones through the years can be described as nothing short of a miracle for a country which is celebrating only its 50th year. But the UAE’s achievements are not only for itself. As the present UAE leaders have said — these are the country’s gifts to the world, particularly to the Arab people.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, mentioned the sense of belonging and pride in the Arab world. He said: “Millions of Arabs felt a sense of belonging and pride as they watched an Arab spacecraft, carrying the name of Hope, reach the farthest point they have ever been in the universe.”
“Our scientists and experts are the real champions who will drive the journey of our country towards further achievements, excellence and success. Our people are known for their humility and persistence. Their feet are on the ground, but their ambitions reach the sky,” he underlined.
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also said during a ministerial retreat when they honoured members of the Hope Probe team: “The Hope Probe is the best gift to dedicate to the people of the UAE on the 50th anniversary of our country. The journey that 200 engineers took to design, build and launch the Hope Probe to Mars is part of the UAE’s journey towards the future.”
He added: “Our goal was not only to reach Mars, but to empower our people with knowledge and confidence and nurture capabilities to lead the country to the top. The success of the Hope Probe team raised the ambitions of the next generation. With the willpower and determination of our people, the UAE will continue to make bigger achievements.”
Why the UAE is exploring space?
The UAE is not only helping in broadening of space science. In a previous Gulf News interview, Dr El Baz said space exploration helps humanity. In particular, he said Earth-orbiting satellites have been used to “better plan the growth of cities and their transportation systems; to detect diseases of crops in agricultural fields so that they would be dealt with before they would expand; to identify potential areas of groundwater concentration particularly in desert regions; and to measure the environmental changes to the physical landscape due to man-made as well as natural forces. UAE’s Hope Probe in particular which was built to understand the climate dynamics of Mars will also help scientists understand Earth’s weather changes.
The country has launched numerous satellites, including the 100-per cent Emirati-designed and -built KhalifaSat 1. KhalifaSat already provides high-resolution images used for everything from urban planning to environmental changes and aiding rescuers in natural disasters. Before KhalifaSat, two satellites were launched by the MBR Space Centre. The Space Centre also guides students to build numerous “cubestats”, miniature space satellites used for scientific research.
With regards to UAE’s lunar mission, scientists say studying the moon will not only allow us to further understand our celestial neighbour, but will also help us to unravel the processes that our own Earth may have experienced during the formation of our solar system.
Dr Nidhal Guessoum, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, said: “We study the moon (in various ways, i.e. with instruments, orbiters, and rovers that carry various devices) first to understand its origin and history and its evolution. (Going to space) also forces us to learn about other objects and phenomena out there, thus broadening our science; and two, it helps us take advantage of the space environment, satellites, spacecraft, and robots that can get us things.”
Inspiring the youth
Space exploration inspires young people. The UAE Space Agency has already set up six space research centres at universities and institutes across the UAE and students are prompted to do well in maths, sciences and engineering. The agenda is not only to prepare national cadres of scientists but also to develop a talent pool that will drive overall national development.
Before Hope Probe was launched from Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan on July 20, 2020, Omran Sharaf, EMM Project Director, said the space project was not just about reaching Mars — there was much more to it. “Hope Probe’s success will create a disruptive change and a positive impact at home that will inspire not just the Emirati but the entire Arab youth,” he added.
Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chair of the UAE Space Agency added: “Hope Probe mission has not only spurred a burgeoning scientific awakening in the UAE, but it has also demonstrated the country’s commitment to global cooperation on space exploration.” She noted the data collected by Hope Probe will provide scientists with a deeper understanding of climate dynamics in Mars that can be applied to understand the future of earth.
100-year national space programme
Back in 2017, the UAE launched Mars 2117 project. The master plan involves preparing national cadres that can achieve scientific breakthroughs to facilitate the transport of people to the Red Planet over the next few decades.
The scientific initiative will first be implemented by an Emirati scientific team and will eventually expand to include international scientists and researchers that will run in parallel with the coordination of human research efforts in the field of exploring and inhabiting Mars. The findings of the project will be available to international research institutes and will also contribute advances in transportation, energy and food security on Earth.
During the announcement of the project, Sheikh Mohammed said: “The landing of people on other planets has been a long-time dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality. Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realise the most important human dream. The new project is a seed that we are planting today, and we expect the next generations to reap its fruits.”
The UAE’s keen interest in space started at least five decades ago. No other country has created a space programme and achieved success in such a short time.