The United Arab Emirates successfully launched its Hope Probe to Mars this month in its quest to complete the country’s first interplanetary journey, which would also be a first for the Arab world.
The UAE won’t be alone on the Red Planet. Its launch is the first of three missions to Mars this summer, with China launching its very first Mars rover on July 23 and the U.S. set to follow with its own rover launch in the days ahead.
It marks a new phase in the escalating U.S.-China rivalry, with Mars being a prime focus in the space race because of its potential for sustaining human life.
For the UAE, however, the mission is part of its longstanding efforts to diversify its oil-driven economy and inspire future generations to continue the country’s momentum in space innovation. It also propels the UAE into an elite club of nations with the know-how and resources to engage in deep space exploration.
The UAE launch served as the first step in the International Space Station’s goal to accomplish a human-inhabited colony on Mars by 2117. The Hope Probe will orbit Mars to collect data about the planet’s atmosphere and weather.
The 174-foot rocket took off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 6:58 a.m. local time on July 20 (5:58 p.m. EDT on July 19). The take-off was rescheduled three times because of weather delays, officially taking off five days after its original launch date.
“This is a historic moment for UAE. It’s an inspiring project,” said UAE Space Agency Director General Mohammed Al Ahbabi during a virtual watch party hosted by the UAE Embassy just prior to the launch. “We are using this project to inspire, to educate, to train our young people not only in the UAE, but across our region.”
After a seven-month journey, the Hope Probe (called Al Amal in Arabic) is scheduled to reach its destination on Mars at the beginning of 2021 — which also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the creation of the UAE. The robot will be the first of its kind to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, answering key questions about the loss of oxygen and hydrogen gases over the span of one year.
These findings will provide the information and data needed for a future mission to the Red Planet with humans rather than technology.
The probe will spend one Martian year orbiting the planet — roughly two years on Earth — before returning.
Aside from the new scientific breakthroughs the project aims to achieve, UAE scientists said the country seeks to ignite passion in young people for future innovations in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math, while also urging cooperation across the world.
“This is a project we are trying to use to inspire the young people and also to provide a good image of our part of the world,” Al Ahbabi said. “UAE is trying its best to expand tolerance, advanced technology and try to set a motive for the region — and this project is in line with that.”
The Hope Probe launch comes just days before similar missions spearheaded by China and U.S. take off, with the two nations’ rovers landing on Mars around the same time in 2021. The UAE launch, however, comes from a younger space agency that was only founded in 2014. The country also expects to launch a mission to the Moon in 2022.
“It sends a very strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, they could do much more,” Omran Sharaf, the UAE Mars project manager, told the Associated Press.
The UAE mission was designed to transfer interplanetary knowledge to future scientists and engineers while increasing diversity in its space ranks. That includes increasing the number of women and minorities on staff, adding to a program that is already comprised of 80% women.
During the UAE virtual watch party, Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba invited Heyam Al Blooshi and Hoor Al Mazmi — two young women who extensively worked on the launch — to share their experiences. The women said they hope to see to future missions arise from their work, and they commended the global cooperation and partnerships that were needed for the UAE mission to succeed.
Otaiba said moments like these are critical for children to watch, as space missions require unity over division. Space is something that transcends political parties, he said.
“Everything is polarized,” the ambassador said. “What this does is it gives you ammunition and the spirit to find this sense of collaboration…. People, especially young people, need to grow up thinking and understanding the power of working together to accomplish greater things. I think this is exactly what this program does.”
Space can be a connector to bring together nations across the world, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who also spoke at the watch party. If space can unite the U.S. and Russia — which disagree on several terrestrial fronts — missions like these are critical to inspire future cooperation.
“People want hope,” Bridenstine said. “And this mission, I think, is a perfect example of that.”
Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.