Eyes on the Stars: UAE's Mars Probe a First for the Arab World
The oil-rich United Arab Emirates has built a nuclear power programme and sent a man to space, and now plans to join another elite club by sending a probe to Mars.
Only the United States, India, the former Soviet Union, and the European Space Agency have successfully sent missions to orbit the Red Planet, while China is preparing to launch its first Mars rover later this month.
The UAE -- a collection of sheikhdoms better known for its skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands and mega attractions -- is now pushing to join their ranks in what will be a first for the Arab world.
It will mark the 50th anniversary of its unification with "Hope", an unmanned spacecraft expected to reach its target in February after being launched on July 15 from Japan's Tanegashima Space Centre.
While the mission objective is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics in Mars' atmosphere and pave the way for scientific breakthroughs, the probe is a foundation for a much bigger goal -- building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years.
Dubai has hired architects to imagine what a Martian city might look like and recreate it in its desert as "Science City", at a cost of around 500 million dirhams (135 million dollars).
And last September, Hazza al-Mansouri became the first Emirati in space, part of a three-member crew that blasted off on a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan, returning home after an eight-day mission in which he became the first Arab to visit the International Space Station.
"Our grandparents followed the stars during their voyages in order to build their glories. Today, our children look at them to build their future," said Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in a tweet on Tuesday.
- Global standing -
The young Gulf nation -- whose influence extends to Yemen, the Horn of Africa and Libya -- hopes to elevate its status as a key regional player, building on its success in establishing itself as a centre for tourism, banking and services despite an economic downturn in recent years.
Despite criticism of its involvement in the conflict in Yemen, which has turned into a quagmire for the Saudi-led military coalition, the UAE has elevated its standing with moves like hosting the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula and becoming the first Arab country to green-light a nuclear power plant.
And over the last few decades it has become a hub for young Arabs aspiring to build professional careers and raise families in a safe environment, in a region too often blighted by war and political crises.
For a country charting a course beyond the oil industry that it was built on, exploration is part of a long-term strategy.
"UAE figured out that space is very important for our development and sustainability. It's a bridge to the future," Mohammed al-Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency, told AFP.
Sarah al-Amiri, 33, the mission's deputy project manager and also the UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, said the trip to Mars is "a message of hope for the region, to set an example of what is possible if we take the talent of the youth and use them positively, this is what's possible".
"We've worked on investing in our space sector for over 15 years... it's about ensuring that this talent is developed for the rest of the region," she told AFP from Tokyo.
In the runup to the Mars mission, the UAE announced it was opening its doors to Arabs across the region to take part in a three-year space programme.
"They can come in and gain experience and be the vehicles of change for the entire region. We cannot go about saying that this region is volatile and remain passive about it," Amiri said.
"People want stability, want opportunities," she added.
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), which spearheaded the Mars project on which some 450 people worked, more than half of them Emirati, is abuzz with excitement.
"This mission is showcasing that this is something we don't normally dream about... but understanding that these opportunities are there," said Mohsen al-Awadhi, the lead missions systems engineer.