In case you missed it (and we’re sure a lot of people did), the race for Mars is being waged by that ageless United States space agency called NASA; that visionary “Martian” named Elon Musk and his “space taxi” company, SpaceX -- and the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates?
Unknown to most of the world at large, the UAE is the only other country besides the United States with deep designs on landing humans on Mars, and the deep pockets to make its Martian ambitions a reality. Over the past two years, the cash-flush UAE has made its presence felt in a very big way in the very exclusive club of nine countries that have space programs aimed at sending satellites, surface probes or humans to Mars.
The UAE burst onto the world’s consciousness as a space power powered by money in July 2014 when it announced its other worldly goal of sending the first Arab spacecraft to another planet -- Mars -- in 2021.
The “Emirates Mars Mission Hope Journey” will launch a spacecraft named “Hope” towards Mars in July 2020. The spacecraft is scheduled to begin orbiting Mars in 2021, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE on Dec. 2, 1971.
Hope will take 200 days to make the 60 million kilometer journey to the Red Planet. Once in orbit, Hope will study the atmosphere and climate of Mars, and will produce the first truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere, about which very little is known.
This compact, hexagonal-section spacecraft will carry three scientific instruments to attain these aims: the Emirates Exploration Imager for high-resolution images; the Emirates Mars InfraRed Spectrometer to study temperature, ice, water vapor and dust in the atmosphere and the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer to study the atmosphere and search for traces of oxygen and hydrogen in space.
The Mars mission will be an incredible gamble verging on the reckless for the UAE, which has no previous experience in deep space missions such as the one it plans for Mars.
The UAE, however, does have immense experience in building and running Earth orbiting satellites, of which it has four in orbit. It said its investments in space technologies exceed US$5.4 billion. But this huge sum went to communications satellites; mobile satellite communications and Earth mapping and observation.
Hope, which will be lofted on a NASA launch vehicle, will be run by the UAE Space Agency (UAESA).
The stunning declaration to send a research satellite to Mars was made by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Emir of Dubai. Dubai is one of the seven emirates comprising the UAE, while Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid is also the Prime Minister of the UAE.
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid said the Muslim Mars mission will prove the Arab world remains capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity despite the many conflicts in the Middle East involving Muslims.
"Our region is a region of civilization," said Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid. "Our destiny is, once again, to explore, to create, to build and to civilize."
He said Dubai chose the immense challenge of reaching Mars because it inspires and motivates its citizens. It’s an outlook similar to that of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy whose challenge in 1960 to the USA to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s inspired the USA to achieve just that.
Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Emir of Abu Dhabi, said the Mars mission "represents the Islamic world's entry into the era of space exploration."
Money for NASA
The UAE, which is a close ally of the U.S., has also kept the American space program alive with generous funding. In June 2016, the UAE agreed to fund a number of NASA space exploration projects, including NASA’s historic first manned landing on Mars of a multinational crew set for 2035.
The U.S. and the UAE announced an agreement that will allow them to collaborate on matters of space and aeronautics research. The deal includes voyages to Mars in support of the UAE's own Mars landing project and NASA's manned landing program.
NASA and UAESA formalized cooperation in the exploration of Mars by signing an implementing arrangement establishing a joint steering group to guide discussions about potential future projects that contribute to exploring Mars.
"NASA is leading an ambitious journey to Mars that includes partnerships with the private sector and many international partners," said former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
"I am confident this new framework agreement with the UAE Space Agency will help advance this journey, as well as other endeavors in the peaceful exploration of outer space."
NASA is concerned it won't have the money to support its future manned space programs and its financial woes are no secret. The Obama Administration's new federal budget submitted in February 2016 proposes to cut NASA's fiscal year 2017 Budget to $19 billion, or $300 million less than its current budget. This picture might not improve under the Trump administration.
The deepest budget cuts will hit NASA's deep space exploration programs, hence the importance of the new partnership with the UAE. Without sufficient and reliable funding for its space exploration programs, NASA fears America's leadership in space and space science will slide into irrevocable decline. The deal with the UAE could be a life saver for NASA.
There has been no word, however, on the amount of funding the UAE is prepared to commit in support of NASA's space exploration programs.
"The reason why cooperation and collaboration are important to the UAESA is because we believe that working alongside international partners is the best way to accelerate the development of space technologies and the space sector within the UAE," said UAESA Chairman Dr. Khalifa Al Romaithi.
"This agreement opens the door to the creation of a wide range of mutually beneficial programs and activities involving numerous organizations within the UAE and the USA."
City on Mars
But the UAE’s grandest dream for Mars is also the grandest dream to date put forward by any person or any nation.
The UAE plans on becoming the first country on Earth to build the first habitable city on Mars. It plans to do this by 2117.
This stunning announcement made in Dubai on Feb. 14 is by far the boldest plan yet for the human colonization of Mars, dwarfing anything Elon Musk or NASA have made public.
The UAE plans to build a Martian city housing thousands of colonists as part of its Mars 2117 Project, which will be implemented in collaboration with specialized international organizations and scientific institutes. The Mars 2117 Project was made public by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid and Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed.
"The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality," said Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid.
A virtual presentation depicting a preliminary concept for the City on Mars was made during the announcement in Dubai at a meeting of the UAE-sponsored World Government Summit in February.
The first human City on Mars will be built by robots, according to the concept put forward by an Emirati team of engineers and a group of scientists assisting them. Their presentation also revealed a concept for the expected lifestyle on Mars; modes of transport; methods for producing power and plans for growing food. It also focused on infrastructure building and revealed the materials the UAE plans to use for building the Earth’s first City on Mars.
UAE officials said the scientific initiatives for the 2117 Mars project will first be implemented by an Emirati scientific team. The project will eventually be expanded to include international scientists and researchers.
Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid said the UAE is among the nine most important countries in the world that invest in space science.
"Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream," he noted. "The new project is a seed that we are planting today, and we expect the next generations to reap its fruits."
Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed explained that the short-term goal is to develop the capacities and skills of Emiratis.
"The 2117 Mars initiative is a long-term project, which will first help develop our education, universities and research centers that will empower young Emiratis to enter all disciplines of scientific research fields," he noted.
"The findings of the project will be available to all international research institutes."
He noted that research developed by the 2117 Mars initiative will contribute to aspects of transportation, energy and food to achieve scientific breakthroughs that also contribute to developing human life on Earth.
"The UAE has become part of dynamic human scientific efforts to explore space and making scientific contributions to human knowledge," said Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed.
"With the launch of this project, we begin a new journey that will last for decades to come, and it will speed up human endeavors to explore other planets."