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Arabs join race to the Red Planet
  • Arabs join race to the Red Planet

Copyright: Flickr/ NASA/JPL-Caltech

Speed read

  • The UAE has set up a new space agency and plans to send a probe to Mars

  • But experts have doubts given the failure rate of previous Mars missions

  • The Emirates has been urged to learn from previous space agency experiences

[CAIRO] The United Arab Emirates (UAE) government has established a space agency that will deliver its recent pledge to send the first Arab probe to Mars.

It aims to send the spacecraft in time to reach Mars by 2 December 2021 — to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the state’s establishment.

No details have been released as to the probe’s mission. But UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan told the Emirates News Agency in July that: “Our goal is to enter the aerospace industry sector, utilise space technology to enhance development and work to build up a cadre of Emiratis specialising in this field”.

But not everyone is convinced that the Emirates will be able to send the probe that soon.

“It is not easy,” says Mohamed al-Awsat al-Ayari, a Tunisian aerospace engineering and astronomy expert at the University of Colorado, United States. “Countries that have been pioneers in space science have been afflicted with major problems and their missions sometimes failed” despite tremendous capabilities and funding, he says.

In 1999, US space agency NASA announced it had lost contact with two Martian missions as they arrived at the planet. Half of the spacecraft sent to Mars failed to complete their missions, including those sent by China and Japan, says Ayari.

India launched its first spacecraft to Mars last November. If it enters Mars orbit as planned next week (24 September), India would become the first Asian country to succeed in a mission to the planet. Only Europe, Russia and the United States have previously managed to send vehicles that have orbited or landed on Mars.

Ayari, who worked with NASA to design the Mars rover Spirit that landed successfully on the planet in 2004, tells SciDev.Net: “The UAE’s announcement of its journey to Mars is a surprise, as this represents a difficult challenge that requires extraordinary technical equipment.”

For the mission to succeed, he advised the nation to take the experiences of other space agencies into account.

Ayari also stressed “the need for the practical experience required by the job, avoiding getting lost in complicated probe designs and utilising Arab talent already working in this field”. He notes that China, for example, employs Tunisian expertise in its space programme.

Ashraf Latif Tadros, president of the astronomy department at the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics in Egypt, described the UAE’s plan as “exaggerated”.

He tells SciDev.Net that “the United States reached the surface of Mars in an exploratory mission 40 years after creating its own space agency and 28 years after its arrival on the moon. How will the UAE outpace all of these achievements?”

But Tadros praises the creation of the UAE Space Agency and says it “encourages the Arab nations to follow in the UAE’s footsteps, because space has become a part of states’ security and economies as well as many aspects of everyday life”.

For example, satellites are used in areas including telecommunications, navigation, tracking, broadcast media, data transfer, weather monitoring and dealing with natural disasters, he says.

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE, told the Emirates News Agency: “Arriving at Mars is a big challenge, [but] when we stop taking on bigger challenges we stop moving forward.”

He pointed out that overall national investment in industries and projects relating to space technology had exceeded 20 billion UAE dirhams (about US$5.4 billion).

This story was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East and North Africa edition and originally posted in Arabic.

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