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UAE Set to Become First Arab Nation Headed to Mars

Despite repeated launch scrubs, analysts call Gulf state rising power in global space race

From Red Planet in 2000 to The Martian in 2015, Middle Eastern deserts have been a favorite filming location for Hollywood productions aiming to replicate the Martian landscape.

Now, however, in a development right out of a summer blockbuster, the United Arab Emirates is attempting to become the first Arab country to launch a mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor, with liftoff scheduled this month for the unmanned Al Amal (Hope) probe, atop a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket, from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

Unfavorable weather conditions caused the scrub of Wednesday’s launch. A new launch date was set for Friday, but according to the official Twitter account of the mission, unstable weather conditions on Tanegashima Island have now forced an additional postponement.

The launch window runs until August 13.

Infographic showing the planned Emirates Mars Mission journey. (UAE Space Agency)

“The UAE is one of the fastest-growing space powers and has ambitious plans for space science and planetary exploration,” Dr. Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, told The Media Line.

“I think if this mission goes well, it will encourage them to do more, which is excellent news,” he said.

The United States and China are also taking advantage of a biennial event in which Mars and Earth are at their closest, a distance of 34 million miles. Both are launching missions this summer – Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the US.

Both ventures will land rovers on the surface of the Red Planet, while the Emirates’ mission is to orbit the equator for a full Martian year (nearly two Earth years), studying the weather and atmosphere.

Is there room in today’s global space race for smaller nations like the UAE to punch above their weight?

“Because of the increased availability of technology, space is becoming much more democratized,” Sam Wilson, project engineer for the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at the California-based Aerospace Corporation, told The Media Line.

“In contrast with the past, when space was dominated by the United States and Russia, many more countries are engaging,” he noted.

Because of the increased availability of technology, space is becoming much more democratized

As of 2019, more than 60 countries had a national space budget and more than 70 owned or operated satellites already in orbit, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Scientists at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai took just six years to complete the Emirates Mars Mission project.

The 734.5 million Emirati dirham ($200 million) spacecraft, weighing in at 1,350 kilograms, is set to reach Mars sometime between next January and March, being timed to coincide with the Gulf country’s 50th anniversary.

“The UAE’s space program is ambitious – perhaps even too ambitious to achieve on their stated timeline,” Colin Rutherford, a program manager at the Lockheed Martin aeronautics firm, told The Media Line in a personal capacity. “But that ambition also propelled [it] from a relatively insular and undeveloped country in the 1970s to the global nation it is today.”

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