How a small Arab nation built a Mars mission from scratch in six years
By Elizabeth Gibney
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced in 2014 that it would send a mission to Mars by the country’s 50th birthday in December 2021, it looked like a bet with astronomically tough odds. At the time, the nation had no space agency and no planetary scientists, and had only recently launched its first satellite. The rapidly assembled team of engineers, with an average age of 27, frequently heard the same jibe. “You guys are a bunch of kids. How are you going to reach Mars?” says Sarah Al Amiri, originally a computer engineer and the science lead for the project.
Six years on, Al Amiri beamed as she admired the country’s fully assembled Mars orbiter while it underwent tests in February. In the bright, clean room at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, engineers were testing the car-sized orbiter before shipping it to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. It will launch sometime during a three-week window starting on 15 July.
The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) will be the first interplanetary venture of any Arab nation, but it’s not just a technology demonstrator. Once it arrives at the red planet in February 2021, the orbiter, known as Hope (or Amal in Arabic), will produce the first global map of the Martian atmosphere. And, somewhat unusually for a space mission, the EMM will release its data to the international scientific community without an embargo.
Progressing from Earth-orbiting satellites to a deep-space mission in six years is “incredible”, says Brett Landin, an engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, who leads the mission’s spacecraft team. The UAE hired the US engineer in an unusual partnership in which the Colorado team provided both mentoring and construction expertise. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Landin.
But for Emiratis, space-science goals come second. Faced with economic and environmental challenges, the small, oil-rich Gulf state hopes the Mars project can accelerate its transformation into a knowledge economy — by encouraging research, degree programmes in basic sciences and inspiring the youth across the Arab states. Like major port and road ventures before it, the Mars mission is a mega-project designed to cause “a big shift in the mindset”, says Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager. The driver “is not space, it’s economic”, he says.
It is early days, but there are hints that it is working, says Al Amiri, who is also the country’s minister for advanced sciences. She has assembled a team of planetary scientists, who are ‘reprogrammed’ engineers, and the UAE’s top universities have in the past few years opened new degree courses in astronomy, physics and other basic sciences. Women make up 34% of the team (see ‘Women in Emirati science’) and 80% of the mission’s scientists. And the UAE government is now mulling involvement in future Moon missions and considering setting up the country’s first national grant-funding programme.
But the UAE has a long way to go. Just a handful of its 100 or so higher-education institutions do research, and Al Amiri estimates that there are perhaps only a few hundred full-time academic researchers. Although the country has many engineers and technicians, “we’ve discovered we have a big shortage of scientists”, says Ahmad Belhoul, minister for higher education and chair of the UAE Space Agency, which was created alongside the Mars mission in 2014.
If they can pull off that economic transformation, it would be a much greater prize than getting data from Mars. Getting to Mars is important, says Al Amiri, but “how we get there is even more important”.
Much of the UAE is so new it feels like the future. But Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building — and driverless metro system are a long way from the country’s beginnings as a group of impoverished communities from distinct tribes that joined forces in the wake of independence from the United Kingdom in 1971. Since then, oil wealth and bold infrastructure projects have helped to turn the desert nation into a global business, shipping and tourism hub and one of the richest countries in the world per capita. “Whatever the UAE has done since day one has been about survival,” says Sharaf.
But the very sectors that helped the UAE’s major cities to thrive have proved vulnerable to a series of economic crashes, and the Arab Spring rocked the region. Some aspects of oil wealth have created long-term problems, especially the UAE’s high-paying government jobs and its generous subsidies for citizens, who make up just 12% of the population (which consists largely of immigrants). Throughout the Gulf, these factors have long made jobs in start-ups, the private sector or research less appealing. Although the UAE is famous for its breathtaking goals, its citizens are typically left with little ambition, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “The government has been trying for years to create both alternative pathways and alternative incentives to have people aspire to something more than a low-effort government job,” he says.
The country is not only running out of oil, but also faces major challenges in providing enough food and water for its population. Emirati undergraduates tend to study engineering or business, but fewer than 5% pursue degrees in basic sciences, including medicine, or progress to PhD level. Data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization data show that the country produced no PhD graduates before 2010 — and in 2017, doctoral students made up less than 0.8% of the tertiary-education population, half the level for the Arab states overall. And although women make up almost 60% of all university graduates and 41% of those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), converting this talent into a workforce, especially in science, has been recognized as a challenge (see ‘Science on the rise’).
The idea to use Mars both to create science jobs and inspire young Emiratis to want to do them came straight from the top — out of a cabinet retreat at the end of 2013. Sharaf, then one of the country’s few satellite engineers, got a call directly from the UAE’s vice-president and prime minister, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, asking if the country could go to Mars by 2021.
A Mars mission is many times more complex than parking a satellite into a low-Earth orbit, Al Amiri says, and historically around half of the trips to the red planet have failed. A Mars-bound craft needs to be largely autonomous to deal with the communications delay to Earth (as long as 22 minutes). It must also be able to survive the extreme forces of lift-off and employ sophisticated propulsion and navigations systems to get into Martian orbit, none of which the UAE had expertise in. “You can’t wake up and say I want to go to Mars. I want to build a spacecraft. You have to really learn it,” says Belhoul.
To do it, the country tapped into foreign expertise, using a model that had shown success before. In 2007, the UAE had hired South Korean firm Satrec Initiative to design and build its first satellites, with the understanding that the company would also train Emirati engineers. By 2018, the UAE was able to launch a satellite designed and built entirely at home.
Applying the same process to the Mars mission, the UAE hired old hands from NASA missions, mainly at the University of Colorado Boulder, to work alongside them and provide training in how to send a probe to another planet. At the outset, Landin, who leads the mission’s 45-person international spacecraft team, says he initially heard people implying that the UAE might merely be buying its way into space. “That is just absolutely, no question about it, not how this mission worked,” he says.
Sharaf was told by his superiors to “build it, not buy it”, to create skills within the UAE itself. So under Sharaf’s leadership, US and Emirati engineers worked together on every part of the mission’s development, from design to manufacture, with work taking place largely in Boulder, but also at the MBRSC. Many of the Emirati engineers, some living away from their families for six months at a time, got the full Rocky Mountain experience, including skiing and camping. “Some of the friendships I’ve made will last forever,” says Landin.
Sharaf declined to provide the mission’s budget, saying the plan is to reveal the overall cost once Hope is in orbit around Mars. He insists, however, that the speedy six-year turnaround is not the result of throwing money at the problem. Most important was having the leadership’s backing to make swift decisions, says Sharaf. Lacking any home-grown planetary scientists, who would usually propose payloads in an open process, the mission leaders also saved time by side-stepping the usual competitive evaluation.
Training enthusiastic young Emiratis and working in a bold, risk-taking environment characteristic of NASA’s early years had the added benefit of making the mission “the most exciting thing I’ve done in my career”, says Landin, who is a veteran of NASA missions including two Mars rovers. He is often asked how the UAE treats women, and he gets a kick out of saying that women are well represented, in fact, making up a much bigger share of the Emirati team than for the US counterpart.
For its science goals, the UAE went to the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, a NASA-led international forum that agrees on gaps in knowledge to tackle in future Mars missions. “It was very important for us to fit into an area of science that was relevant not only to the UAE but the global science community,” says Al Amiri.
The EMM team then selected instruments and an orbit that would fill a major knowledge gap: how the Martian atmosphere changes over daily and seasonal cycles. Hope’s innovation lies in its special orbit. It is taking a wide and distant route, so it will be the first probe to give a comprehensive picture of Mars’s atmosphere, its clouds, gases and dust storms, throughout the entire day, rather than at individual time slots or locations. The mission’s data will also be completely open for all to study.
Members of the science team, who went from being engineers to authoring papers related to the mission, say they once felt conspicuous at international meetings, because of their clothing. But now they are frequent fixtures, swapping data and giving talks. “Our hijab makes us still stand out,” says Fatma Lootah, a chemical engineer who works on the mission’s ultraviolet spectrometer. “But now I know a lot of people and feel part of the community.”
Lootah hopes that soon there will be science graduates to take up places in the team. Already the MBRSC’s staff has risen from 70 to more than 200, and the centre regularly sends researchers abroad on exchanges as well as hosting undergraduate research interns.
Many of those interns come from universities that are just starting to offer academic programmes in related fields. Five universities have launched courses in basic sciences: the American University of Sharjah, for example, has started bachelor’s studies in physics, and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi has begun an aerospace engineering programme. Meanwhile the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC), founded in 2016 at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, has quickly become a source of research jobs for graduates.
And the Mars mission is helping to drive more interest in STEM subjects, says Belhoul. Enrolment by UAE nationals in STEM university courses has been rising by around 12% a year, six times faster than the overall trend in enrolment, with the increase highest in women.
Enthusiasm for space is spreading across the region, says Belhoul, aided by the UAE’s first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, who went to the International Space Station in 2019. Earlier this year, the UAE that announced it would lead a consortium of 11 Arab states in building a climate-monitoring satellite at the NSSTC. Since 2014, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have also established agencies of their own. The EMM is the public face of a wider drive to promote research in the UAE, says Belhoul. Under plans launched in 2017, the country aims to treble the number of home-grown PhD graduates by 2030, which will be complemented by efforts to bring in researchers from abroad through a more-flexible visa programme.
Belhoul’s ministry hopes that later this year, the cabinet will approve his proposal to create a national competitive research fund that will catalyse the growth of science by providing long-term, stable support across science in universities, including money to attract scholars from abroad. A 100-million dirham (US$27-million) four-year ministry-run pilot is already under way, providing multi-year grants for select research programmes, and the next round should be “much bigger”, he says.
The share of the UAE’s gross domestic product spent on R&D has already risen from 0.5% in 2011 to 1.3% in 2018, and is on track to hit its goal of 1.5% by the end of next year. The UAE has big plans to keep pushing in space. It plans to build a ‘Mars Science City’ outside Dubai, which will be devoted to research and education, as well as entertainment. And like many other countries, the UAE is also now considering putting spacecraft, and perhaps people, on the Moon.
Many researchers outside the country are excited at the UAE’s venture into space. “I love listening to the team talk about why they do the mission, about viewing it as an inspirational goal giving excitement and hope across the Middle East,” says Danielle Wood, who specialises in aerospace engineering and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Another stated government plan is to ultimately be part of a settlement on Mars — although not until 2117. “We are still keeping our long-term aspiration to go to Mars, but the Moon is a stepping stone to getting there,” says Belhoul. Even if such announcements amount to little more than a gimmick, the Hope mission has genuinely brought skills to the UAE, says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a historian of the Gulf at Rice University in Houston, Texas. It has contributed to employing a new generation of Emiratis in science and technology, which is a step on the route to diversifying the economy, he says.
Given how recently the country started awarding PhD degrees, a boom in STEM education and research will probably require the input of foreign scientists for now. So far the UAE’s major cities have had no trouble luring business talent from around the world, but academics could prove a harder sell. Coates Ulrichsen warns that despite the UAE seeing itself as a tolerant and liberal society (it even has a ‘ministry of tolerance’), the government — one of the world’s few federal monarchies — has cracked down harder on freedom of speech since the Arab Spring in 2011, he says.
Scientists who keep out of politics won’t encounter problems, he says. But researchers who voice an opinion that is politically sensitive or goes against the UAE government’s agenda run the risk of arrest and detention, he says. “In terms of what can and cannot be said, the UAE is one of the most heavily surveilled societies in the world,” he says. Some other laws, although rarely enforced, raise concern among foreigners, such as those banning all sex outside of heterosexual marriages.
Maintaining momentum in expanding its science capacity could also prove tough, because the UAE’s economy was struggling even before the economic slowdown and halving in crude-oil prices brought by the pandemic. Alterman says that the country has made remarkable progress, but that the flip side of its huge ambition could be a lack of staying power. “Many of the challenges they’ve had have been staying focused on the follow-through, as there’s always something bright and shiny and new on the horizon,” he says.
Earlier this year, members of the EMM’s international review board told Al Amiri that back in 2015 they were sceptical that the mission would work out, although they didn’t tell her then. But she is used to being an underdog. “We’re a new country that is late to the competition in the global perspective. It’s natural for people to think this was crazy,” she says. A country can’t progress as quickly as the UAE has without audacious projects, she says. “For us, it’s not a luxury. It’s not a gimmick. It’s an absolute necessity to develop skills and capabilities and develop a nation as a whole.”
Women in Emirati science
Although women make up a large share of graduates in science and technology, those gains have not translated to the workplace.
When the United Arab Emirates’ Mars mission takes off, it will be a victory for the entire country, but particularly for women, who make up 34% of the mission team and 80% of the science team. Women’s representation in the Emirati workforce overall is lower, at 28%, but this is changing despite traditional gender and family roles.
In the UAE, women present an unusually large source of talent. Among Emiratis, women account for 56% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates, which falls to 41% when foreign students are included. Both are well above the world average. Women also represent around 70% of all Emirati graduates. The reasons for this are not clear, says Maya El-Hachem, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group in Dubai. But, she says, women engage more enthusiastically in higher education in the country — whereas men often follow business or military careers or study abroad. And girls in segregated schools tend, she says, to get taught by more dedicated teachers, because the culture has long regarded teaching as a more prestigious job for women than men.
Women’s rate of entry into the workplace remains low given their levels of education, says El-Hachem. Some women choose not to work and, especially in more conservative parts of the country, families expect women to remain close to home, making it hard to follow the job market. And according to Human Rights Watch, laws still exist that allow levels of domestic violence and require Emirati women to get a male guardian’s permission to marry.
But the country’s culture has evolved dramatically over the past 50 years, with views on women’s roles becoming more liberal every year, says Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE’s minister for advanced sciences. Women have taken more leading roles in the past decade, spearheaded by their participation in the government; two-thirds of government employees and one-quarter of ministers are women, she says. In the past three years, the government has also introduced longer maternity leave for its employees and flexible working. It also adopted a law this year requiring equal pay for equal work for women and men.