GALAC­TIC AM­BI­TION

THE MID­DLE EAST JOUR­NEYS TO THE STARS

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"They agreed on de­vel­op­ing a strate­gic ap­proach that would fo­cus on build­ing mu­tual con­fi­dence and un­der­stand­ing of space sys­tems."

On July 22, the Mo­hammed Bin Rashid Space Cen­tre (MBRSC), the UAE’S space agency, re­leased an im­age of the full moon, cap­tured in clear, high def­i­ni­tion. The im­age was taken by Dubaisat-2, a satel­lite owned and op­er­ated by MBRSC, which was launched in 2013 to take high-qual­ity im­ages of the earth. Its pic­tures have al­ready found plenty of uses—from ur­ban plan­ning and map­ping to en­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing.

While high-def­i­ni­tion im­ages of the moon are noth­ing new, the im­age re­lease in July was the lat­est in a se­ries of im­por­tant mile­stones for the Mid­dle East’s space ef­forts. The re­gion has, over the past few years, made bold as­ser­tions that it wants to be part of global space ex­plo­ration ef­forts, tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated by the USA, Rus­sia, China and Europe.

There’s a good rea­son why so few coun­tries have in­volved them­selves in space ex­plo­ration—cost. It’s in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive to get any sort of equip­ment out past the up­per reaches of the earth’s at­mos­phere, mean­ing that any govern­ment look­ing to take its space ef­forts se­ri­ously had bet­ter be pre­pared to sign plenty of cheques. But with the Gulf states now well es­tab­lished as eco­nomic pow­er­houses, gov­ern­ments in the re­gion have de­cided that they should com­pete with the best of the world in the race to the stars as well.

So far, the UAE ap­pears to be lead­ing the re­gional charge. Dubai-sat2 was the re­gion’s first real ef­fort to build a home­grown space probe—the first Dubai-sat was ac­tu­ally built pri­mar­ily by South Korea, with Emi­rati engi­neers learn­ing from their coun­ter­parts about what it takes to build and launch a satel­lite. Dubai-sat2 saw the Emi­rates take on at least 50% of the work, with engi­neers from South Korea sim­ply watch­ing over their ef­forts. A third satel­lite, Khal­i­fasat, will be built en­tirely in-house at the MBRSC, us­ing only lo­cal engi­neers. If the planned launch in early 2018 goes ahead, it will be a tes­ta­ment to the coun­try in its abil­ity to up­skill its work­force in such a small amount of time.

That said, the UAE isn’t plan­ning on go­ing it alone with its space-re­lated ef­forts. As ev­i­denced by the South Korea tie-up for Dubai-sat1, the coun­try re­alises

that value can be gleaned from high-level part­ner­ships. And ear­lier this year, the coun­try an­nounced that it had agreed with the USA to work to­wards space co­op­er­a­tion. Built on dis­cus­sions in Wash­ing­ton, DC, the agree­ment cov­ers pol­icy and reg­u­la­tory de­vel­op­ments, space ex­plo­ration and bi-lat­eral space sci­ence co­op­er­a­tion. The two coun­tries are also look­ing to work on space se­cu­rity and the ex­change of best prac­tices to­gether.

“They agreed on de­vel­op­ing a strate­gic ap­proach that would fo­cus on build­ing mu­tual con­fi­dence and un­der­stand­ing of space sys­tems on which both coun­tries rely for eco­nomic, en­vi­ron­men­tal, se­cu­rity and so­cial well-be­ing,” said US spokesper­son Jeff Rathke when the agree­ment was an­nounced.

But the UAE’S space-re­lated dreams go fur­ther than launch­ing satel­lites and forg-

ing part­ner­ships with big-league space ex­plor­ers. In­deed, last sum­mer, the coun­try set out plans for its most am­bi­tious space project yet—a mis­sion to Mars.

Granted, this won’t be a manned mis­sion—the coun­try in­stead wants to send an un­manned probe to the Red Planet— how­ever, it will be a lofty feat to pull off. The idea is to launch the probe from earth in July 2020. It will then take the craft seven months to com­plete the 60-mil­lionkilo­me­tre jour­ney, ar­riv­ing just in time to co­in­cide with the UAE’S 50th Na­tional Day. What’s in­ter­est­ing about the project, though, is that it’s be­ing done sim­ply as in the pur­suit of sci­en­tific ex­plo­ration, rather than a means to an end. Even with some­thing like Dubaisat-2, there are tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits to the in­for­ma­tion that the satel­lite sends back down to earth. But with a Mars mis­sion, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what bear­ing the data will have on any­one re­sid­ing on this planet—in­stead, the in­for­ma­tion will mostly be used to sat­isfy sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity.

That said, the Mars Mis­sion is also be­com­ing a point of pride for the UAE. Ac­cord­ing to Om­ran Sharaf, the man lead­ing the mis­sion, there’s a lot of na­tional con­fi­dence rid­ing on its suc­cess.

“The rep­u­ta­tion of the na­tion de­pends on this,” he told the Guardian in July.

“It’s the first time we go to Mars. 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.”

The Mars Mis­sion will also mark the first Mid­dle East­ern ef­fort to take a se­ri­ous step into the rest of the so­lar sys­tem. But it’s not just about na­tional pride—the team be­hind the mis­sion wants to use it to in­spire the lo­cal sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. For ex­am­ple, at the mo­ment, there are pre­cious few lo­cal ex­perts with in-depth knowl­edge on Mars. The team hopes that, with an Arab probe go­ing to Mars, more lo­cal sci­en­tists will want to spe­cialise on the Red Planet.

The UAE’S ef­forts are also act­ing as a cat­a­lyst for other space-re­lated projects from around the rest of the re­gion. Saudi Ara­bia has al­ready in­vested in satel­lites around the world, and Qatar ap­pears to be tak­ing a keen in­ter­est in space, too. Even though it will be a ma­jor mile­stone, the UAE’S Mars Mis­sion is un­likely to be the Mid­dle East’s fi­nal fron­tier.

The UAE hopes to land a probe on Mars by the year 2021

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