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UAE Mission to Mars

Launch of a new golden age of Arab science,


Scientists in the Emirates hope the UAE’s Mars mission will help to rekindle a passion for learning and exploratio­n throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

If all goes well, the Hope probe will arrive at the Red Planet next year after travelling 60 million kilometres across the Solar System.

The mission represents dozens of milestones and achievemen­ts for everyone involved in the operation’s conception, planning and execution.

As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, put it his month: “Our journey to space represents a message of hope to every Arab citizen that we have the innovation, resilience and efforts to compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge.”

Hope will be the first spacecraft from a Muslim country to visit Mars.

The discoverie­s it makes about the planet’s atmosphere will be shared freely with the world.

For Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysi­cist at the American University of Sharjah, the significan­ce of Hope goes beyond science.

“There is going to be good science, but the objective is not really the science,” he said. “The objective is to catalyse this generation.

“I have always been happy that the officials of the UAE have stressed this is an Arab mission, not just an Emirati mission or a Gulf mission.

“This is for the Arabs, and the Arab world, to bring it into the space age.”

The Arab Muslim world was once at the forefront of astronomy and science.

For nearly a thousand years, Arab scientists searched the heavens and deciphered their mysteries.

As Europe descended into the so-called Dark Ages in the seventh century, Arabs were emerging into the light, and there are clues in some of the words we still use today.

These include the astronomic­al term “azimuth”, the word “algebra” – literally, the reunion of broken parts – and “algorithm”, the Latinised version of the last name of Mohammed ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi, a scholar at Baghdad’s House of Wisdom in the eighth century.

Al Khwarizmi lived during the period known as the Islamic Golden Age.

Its origins can be found in the conversion of the Arab world to Islam by the Prophet Mohammed and its expansion into and influence on territorie­s that reached across North Africa into Spain and east into what was then Persia and the Indian subcontine­nt.

Scholars generally believe it was the tenets and obligation­s of Islam that led to this quest for scientific knowledge.

A frequently quoted hadith translates as: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.”

There was also the need to calculate accurately the time of important religious festivals such as Ramadan, Eid and Hajj, and the ability to find the exact direction of Makkah from anywhere in the world.

This last task requires what is known as spherical trigonomet­ry, first developed by the Egyptians more than 4,000 years ago, but refined by mathematic­ians such as Al Khwarizmi and Abu Al Wafa, who worked at the House of Wisdom in the 10th century.

Prof Guessoum said another theory is that Muslim scientists simply wanted to understand the world.

“The better you know, the more you understand, the more you are an enlightene­d Muslim,” he said.

Added to that was the existing body of knowledge Muslim Arabs encountere­d as they began their territoria­l expansion.

“They quickly realised there was a huge scientific heritage, that these guys had done a lot of work, and some Muslim rulers said: ‘Why not us’? Why should they be ahead of us?’

“So they started to support and patronise scientists.”

Whatever the roots of this Golden Age, the results were spectacula­r, and in no area more so than in astronomy.

Arab scientists soon set about dismantlin­g the theories of Ptolemy, the Greek mathematic­ian who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the second century.

By the ninth century, the astronomer Al Farghani had recalculat­ed Ptolemy’s circumfere­nce of the Earth, measuremen­ts that would be later used by Christophe­r Columbus – although he confused the longer Arabic mile with the shorter European mile and so first believed that he had sailed to Asia rather than the Americas.

Ptolemy’s assertion that the Earth was in a fixed position at the centre of the Universe was also challenged, with the gradual realisatio­n that it actually rotated on an axis.

Muslim astronomer­s mapped the stars and planets visible from Earth, calculatin­g their movement and appearance across the seasons.

They refined the sundial so it could be used to indicate prayer times at mosques and built highly sophistica­ted astrolabes, mechanical devices used by astronomer­s to identify stars and planets.

Of even more importance was the use of the astrolabe by navigators to determine their position anywhere in the world.

The stars and planets were viewed from observator­ies, such as those in Damascus and Baghdad, although without telescopes, which did not appear until the 16th century in Europe.

By then, the Golden Age was over.

Its end has been blamed on many factors, from political and economic decline to the rise of rigid ideology less friendly to scientific inquiry.

Innovation passed to the West, with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenm­ent, followed by the European colonisati­on of Arab lands.

For Prof Guessoum, whose Arabic YouTube channel on space science has more than 300,000 subscriber­s, this decline is measured by the almost complete absence of large telescopes and observator­ies in Muslim Arab countries today.

Building new observator­ies is something he has pushed for over many years, writing in a 2013 article for Nature magazine: “Large projects in this field can inspire the science and technology community, the education sector and the public, and shift attitudes towards basic research in general.”

Announcing the Hope mission in July, 2014, Sheikh Mohammed said: “The first message is for the world: that Arab civilisati­on once played a great role in contributi­ng to human knowledge, and will play that role again; the second message is to our Arab brethren: that nothing is impossible.”

For the Arab people, Prof Guessoum compares this moment to the historic speech by President John F Kennedy in 1962, in which he said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Speaking to the internatio­nal media last month, Hope project director Omar Sharaf said: “It will be a message not just to Emirati youth, but to Arab youth.

“This is a region that more than 800 years ago used to be a generator of knowledge, an example of co-existence and co-operation, of people of differing faiths building the region.

“The moment we stopped doing that, we went backwards.”

When the first Emirati astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, went into space last September, Prof Guessoum watched the launch on television with a high school class for girls.

“I saw right there the impact, the effect,” he says. “The pride that it inspired in people.

“Imagine if sending an astronaut to the space station has that kind of impact on the youth already, then sending a spacecraft to Mars – I am really hoping that the entire Arab world will adopt it and feel part of it and that it will inspire them.”

I have always been happy that officials have stressed this is an Arab mission, not just an Emirati mission NIDHAL GUESSOUM Astrophysi­cist

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 ??  ?? An engineer works on the Hope Mars probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre
An engineer works on the Hope Mars probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

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