If the United Arab Emirates has its way, it may very well beat its better-known contenders (such as the U.S., Russia, and China) in landing on Mars, which has increasingly become the accepted next step in human space exploration.
Now I know what many of you are thinking: does the UAE even have a space program, much less the infrastructural and scientific capacity to do something as costly and as technically challenging as a Mars landing? Of course, this is the country responsible for such audacious achievements as the world’s tallest structure, several immense artificial islands, an indoor skiing mall, and more — so clearly, there is no shortage of pluck and cash to make it happen.
The country’s vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said in a statement on Wednesday, “We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us.”
The UAE has invested $5.4 billion into space technologies, but has yet to send someone into orbit. They have been “expanding activities of Al Yah Satellite Communications satellite data and TV broadcast company, mobile satellite communication company Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications and Earth mapping and observation system Dubai Sat,” reports RT.
The Gulf state has long intended to get involved in the space race, aspiring to replicate successful space agencies like Europe’s ESA or the United States’ NASA programs. The unmanned mission to the Red Planet will concur with the country’s 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain.
To make clear the seriousness of its intentions, the UAE marked the statement with a simulation of what the Mars mission would look like (sorry, translation not available).
I for one welcome this development. In an increasingly globalized world, space exploration is to the inherent benefit of humanity, regardless of who takes the reigns. This is especially true with something as expensive and technically-challenging as a Mars mission. The more countries we have involved, the more resources we can muster and the faster our progress (geopolitical challenges and rivalries notwithstanding).
It is worth pointing out that while the UAE may be the first small nation to express such a bold aim, it is hardly the only one with an interest in space. As the following map shows, plenty of nations maintain active space programs (albeit with varying degrees of funding and ambition):
The map legend is as follows:
- Yellow: Manned Extraterrestrial Exploration + Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellite
- Orange: Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
- Red: Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
- Dark Green: Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
- Light Green: Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
- Beige: Operates Satellites
Note that this map doesn’t include the national space agencies that are either in the proposal stage or active only in research — these would include such an eclectic mix of countries as Belarus, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Morocco, South Africa, Bangladesh, and many more. Of course, the growing number of private space exploration companies open up a whole other world of potential (no pun intended).
In any case, it would be interesting to see if the UAE’s ambitious plans come to fruition, and if so, whether that will spur other countries (and institutions) of all sizes to take a crack at space travel. Interesting times await, that’s for sure.