The United Arab Emirates yesterday announced its plan to create the country’s space agency and to send its first unmanned exploration probe to Mars by 2021. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president of UAE and monarch of Dubai, said that the country has already raised 20 billion dirham (~US$5.44 billion) for the agency, which will be responsible for all of space exploration activities in the country as well as developing the technologies needed.
“The more than 60 million kilometres journey to Mars will mark UAE out as one of few countries with space programmes to explore the Red Planet,” said Al Maktoum in a released statement.
If the UAE can pull this off, it would be an impressive feat, and a very ambitious endeavour in general. “They will succeed, because they will make sure they get the right people and the right collaborations,” comments Nidhal Guessoum, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.
Is it realistic to make the trip in just seven years from now? Maybe not. It is very hard to land a mission on Mars, even for veteran space nations like Russia. The United States is the only country so far that has landed a rover on the surface of our closest planet. But that is really besides the point. Whether they get to Mars by 2021 or not may not be that important. In fact, it’s the journey to that ambitious aim that is particularly interesting, and how the UAE will work for it.
This is a true chance for the UAE to change its international image. Everyone knows Dubai as a luxurious shopping city with the largest skyscrapers and the biggest malls. But this is a chance for the country to change its international image and become known as a science-producing country. “What I’m excited about is that this is the kind of great project that will now entice young people and will be associated with the UAE,” adds Guessoum.
It is also a chance to create a true sense of excitement about science in the rich Gulf state. Arabs have a rich history of astronomy that they are particularly proud of, but that was lost over the years. This is a chance to rekindle that. It can inspire young people to be interested in space and science again and can drive research and high-tech industry, much like NASA’s mission to the moon did for the US in the 1960’s.
While the UAE is rich enough to be able to import much of the expertise and technologies it needs, this is also a chance for the country to use this target to drive local research. It can promote education, international collaborations and attract world-class expertise who would be interested in working as part of this target.
“Our region is a cradle of great civilizations. Given the right tools, Arabs, once again, can deliver new scientific contributions to humanity,” said Al Maktoum in his statement. That vision is the most important part of the country’s announcement, and it’s more important than whether they would actually be able to land a research probe on Mars in 2021. And if they do, then that will be the next phase of the research boost that the project can offer the UAE and the region in general.