Over the past decade, the UAE has experienced unprecedented innovation in the space sector. In 2006, the UAE began establishing knowledge transfer programs in preparation of a grand vision: to go to Mars. If all goes according to plan, the small, oil-rich country will be among the first nations to study and eventually send manned missions to the Red Planet.
Collaborating closely with universities and space agencies around the world, the country's efforts have advanced steadily, but quietly, under the public radar. Recently, a spattering of successful launches and major announcements following the formation of the UAE Space Agency in 2014 have turned a spotlight on the UAE's ambitious plans.
Here are 10 things you should know about the UAE's space program:
1) Last October, the UAE launched the first satellite built entirely by Emirati engineers in the UAE
Launched last fall from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, KhalifaSat is the first UAE satellite to be designed, built and tested in the country entirely by Emirati scientists and engineers. Assembled in half a decade at Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), it garnered five patents and developed a digital camera that rivals some of the most advanced remote-sensing observation satellites used today. The camera will capture detailed imagery of the Earth in order to monitor environmental changes.
2) This fall, the UAE will send an Emirati astronaut to the International Space Station
In 2017, the UAE Space Agency announced its inaugural astronaut corps, selected from a pool of more than 4,000 applicants who ranged in age from 17 to 67 and over one third of whom were women. After passing extensive personal and cognitive tests, Hazza Al Mansouri, a 34-year-old military pilot, and Sultan Saif Al Neyadi, a 37-year-old doctor of information technology, were chosen and are undergoing intensive training in several countries. "It's a new Arab achievement announcing the names of the first [Emirati] astronauts of the International Space Station,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted following the announcement. “Hazza and Sultan, who represent all Arab youth, raise the ceiling of ambitions for the coming generations of Emiratis.”
Al Mansouri, with Al Neyadi as his alternate, is set to embark on an eight-day mission to the International Space Station in September and will be the first Arab to venture into space since His Highness Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from Saudi Arabia flew on the American STS-5-G Space Shuttle Mission in 1985.
3) The UAE Space Agency’s "Hope" probe will provide the first holistic study of the Martian climate
Expected to enter the Martian atmosphere in 2021, the same year that the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Emirates Mars Mission, or "Hope" probe, will be the Arab world’s first mission to another planet. Whereas in the past, probes have only provided snapshots of the Martian climate, the Hope probe will examine how it changes throughout daily and seasonal cycles. It will study how the Martian atmosphere erodes and is lost into space, a phenomenon that leaves the planet void of water vapor and ill-suited to support life. After collecting information from the probe, the UAE will share the data with more than 200 academic and scientific institutions around the world for free.
4) The average age of the team working on the Emirates Mars Mission is 27
The majority of the team responsible for sending the Hope probe 37 million miles to Mars is under 35. Its deputy project manager and chief scientist, Her Excellency Sarah Al Amiri, is in her early 30s and is now Minister of State for Advanced Sciences in the UAE cabinet as well as Chairperson of the UAE Council of Scientists. Through the Emirates Mars Mission and initiatives such as Mars 2117, the UAE intends to cultivate the next generation of scientists and engineers. "Just as there are no limits to space, there is no limit to our ambitions to achieve further achievements for our country,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, tweeted in September. “We have great confidence in our youth in carrying the banner of innovation, achievement and excellence.”
5) The UAE plans to establish a self-sustaining habitable settlement on Mars by 2117
In 2017, the UAE announced that in 100 years it aims to establish the first habitable human settlement on Mars. “Mars 2117 is a seed we are sowing today to reap the fruit of new generations led by a passion for science and advancing human knowledge," Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced via Twitter following the announcement. In preparation for this endeavor, the UAE will build a series of laboratories known as Mars Science City simulating conditions on the Red Planet.
6) In July 2018, the UAE and NASA signed an implementing arrangement for cooperation on manned spaceflight
In an historic collaboration, NASA and the UAE entered into an arrangement of cooperation on human spaceflight. The agreement strengthens an overarching framework agreement between the two parties signed in 2016 to collaborate on the exploration of outer space for peaceful purposes.
“The document we signed yesterday represents another major milestone in our vision to become a leading spacefaring nation, offering the opportunity for knowledge sharing and close collaboration with NASA in regards to our astronaut program,” Dr. Mohammed Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, said during the signing ceremony at the 69th International Astronautical Congress. “With the first Emirati astronaut set to board the ISS in [September] 2019, this agreement with NASA will allow MBRSC and the UAE Space Agency to further build on our human spaceflight experiences.”
As part of the agreement, the UAE will be able to use NASA resources to train astronauts, utilize the International Space Station, contribute to lunar exploration and collaborate with the U.S. on research projects related to the Mars Scientific City.
7) UAE students can build satellites through the UAE Mini-Satellite Challenge
One of the UAE Space Agency’s main agendas is to transform the UAE into a hub of space education. In partnership with Khalifa University and Boeing, the agency created the UAE Mini-Satellite Challenge, which offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to design, build and test satellites. Students are currently developing a satellite to study greenhouse gases in Khalifa University’s Yahsat Space Laboratory with a launch planned for the end of 2019.
8) The Arab region was a cradle of early space science
During the Middle Ages, Islamic scientists used math and science to refine the movements of the planets and the stars, leaving an indelible mark on astronomy and space science. Today, 24 craters on the moon bear the name of Islamic scientists, and more than 165 stars, including the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt in the Orion constellation, have names of Arabic origin.
9) The UAE’s commitment to space began with its founder, Sheikh Zayed
Throughout the 1970s, UAE founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan met with astronauts from several of the Apollo missions to learn about their experiences traveling to and from the moon. In 1973, President Nixon even gifted Sheikh Zayed a sliver of moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 from the Taurus-Littrow Valley of the moon. The rock now resides in the Al Ain Museum, labeled as a “symbol of the unity of the human endeavor.”
10) The UAE may soon offer space tourism flights
In March 2019, the UAE Space Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the Abu Dhabi Airports Company to explore utilizing Al Ain International Airport as a potential space port. Virgin Galactic, who has an equity shareholder from the UAE, may stand to benefit from such an arrangement, and along with others, start looking at opportunities to launch tourism and science experiments from the UAE.