When asked if he was nervous, 32-year-old Omran Sharaf was unequivocal. “Of course,” he says. “The reputation of the nation depends on this.”
If all goes well, the United Arab Emirates will have a space probe orbiting Mars by 2021 – a first for an Arab world embroiled in endemic conflict. And, as the man leading the Emirates Mars Mission, Sharaf has a lot on his plate. “It’s the first time we go to Mars,” he says. “I have to say, I think the team doesn’t sleep. But it’s something we have to do if we want to progress and move forward. If we can reach Mars, all challenges for the nation should be doable.”
Announced in July 2014 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the UAE’s vice-president and Dubai’s ruler, the Emirates Mars Mission is expected to launch in July 2020 sending the probe hurtling on the 60 million km journey to the red planet. It is expected to arrive seven months later, half a century to the year since the founding of the country, a union of seven emirates on the Arabian gulf.
After a feasibility study that began in late 2013, the team had 90 days after the announcement to come up with a mission plan.
Built from aluminium and sporting a star tracker as well as an array of solar panels and thrusters, the probe will be the size of a small car. It will include imaging equipment and ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers that will help scientists understand the dynamics and climates of the different layers of the atmosphere of Mars, the proportion of various elements and compounds in the atmosphere, and the mechanism by which hydrogen and oxygen escape into space. The mission is set to last for at least two years.
The team hopes the round-the-clock data gathering will help provide a detailed insight into the planet’s evolution.
Sarah Amiri, the 29-year-old head of the science team, says the aim of the Mars mission is to understand the planet’s evolution from one that once had flowing water at the edge of the solar system’s habitable “Goldilocks zone” to the arid, dry world it is today.
“Understanding that evolution and understanding how the loss of water, which was triggered by the loss of atmosphere on the planet, and the dynamics and climate change that has occurred and is occurring on Mars, is very important for humanity’s understanding of the evolution of Earth itself,” she says.
Both Sharaf and Amiri are engineers and veterans of the country’s nascent space programme, having been involved in the launches of DubaiSat 1 and 2, which were developed and launched with South Korea. The first satellite was primarily a Korean effort with the Emirati engineers and scientists learning from their counterparts. The second satellite was more of a collaborative effort, with the UAE team solely responsible for about half the project, and embedding engineers with the Koreans to study their efforts.
KhalifaSat, the third satellite, scheduled for launch in early 2018, is being built in-house at the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre entirely by local engineers, and is a final test before the launch of the Mars probe.
Dubai’s name has become synonymous with grand, headline-grabbing projects – the country’s skyline now features the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa; passengers flying into Dubai airport, one of the largest in the world, can see manmade islands in the shape of palm trees from the air; and the city inaugurated a metro system in 2009.
Dubai at one point teetered on the edge of financial collapse after the global credit crunch at the end of the last decade, but has since recovered with the aid of a bailout from the UAE’s oil-rich capital, Abu Dhabi. At the time, the breakneck speed of growth had appeared almost hubristic.
But the Mars team bristles at the suggestion that the mission is one driven by vanity.
“These are all ambitious projects,” says Amiri. “You need to evolve as a young nation and catch up to the world in 50 years. You need those large, ambitious goals to work towards.”
In fact, Sharaf says the project’s budget is tight and the team is not allowed to purchase parts from commercial manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
“We could have just procured and developed the instruments but that’s not what the government wanted, they wanted to have a proper contribution from the UAE team and Emirati engineers,” he says.
While the assembly of the probe, its integration and testing will all be carried out in facilities in Dubai, the teams are working with scientists and academics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University in the United States on designing the spacecraft, software development and equipment requirements.
The idea is for the team to learn from their academic partners and bring the knowledge back to the UAE for the spacecraft assembly.
“At the end of the day, we are not reinventing the wheel,” says Sharaf. “We are going to build our system and our mission around what has been achieved before. When we’re done with our mission, people are going to build on what we have achieved.”
Sharaf says reaching Mars was a means to a broader goal of increasing the number of scientists in the UAE, developing a space sector and contributing to the span of human knowledge, which is why they are keen to engage local academics.
“This mission is not about reaching Mars but about inspiring a whole new generation and transforming the way youth think within the region,” he says. “The goal here is hope, for humanity, for the region, for youth in countries with lots of conflict.”
For now, the Emirates Mars Mission team includes 75 people, with the aim of bringing that up to 150, all of them Emirati, half of them women, and with an average age of 27. They are broken down in teams responsible for science, probe design, operating the spacecraft after launch, media and educational outreach, logistics and equipment standards, and a ground station team.
The project also hopes to inject vitality into the local scientific community, allowing them free access to data from the probe and consulting with staff and students at six local universities on mission design.
The UAE does not have scientists or researchers focusing specifically on Mars, so the space programme is trying to encourage local universities and science communities to focus on Mars and planetary science over the coming five years in order to drive the research that can use the data from the mission.
But the team also has a more aspirational goal, one tied to the Middle East’s history as the home of the House of Wisdom and the golden age of scientific discovery, when the region was the world’s centre of learning and produced invaluable contributions to medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Amiri says that the UAE has agreed to allow some 200 institutions direct access to the mission data.
It is a vision that feels more remote with every passing day, as terror groups such as Islamic State rampage through the region promoting an austere, violent mutation of Islam that aims to reverse centuries of progress. But those in charge of the Emirati space programme hope the first Arab mission to Mars could once again galvanise scientific inquiry and lend some measure of inspiration to millions of young Arabs, in the way Americans growing up in the era of the Apollo programme craved the prospect of space exploration.
“Space is very humbling, and an image of Earth without any boundaries, the actual conflicts and how small they appear,” says Amiri. She and Sharaf recall the metaphor coined by the renowned American scientist Carl Sagan, who described the Earth as a “pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam” when observed from far away in the solar system, where the boundaries of class, religion and ethnicity disappear.
“It makes you think more about putting our differences aside and treating each other as humans and one species,” Sharaf says.
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