A screen broadcasts the launch of the "Hope" Mars probe at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai on July 19, 2020. Photo: Giuseppe Cache / AFP

The United Arab Emirates made history on Monday, launching what has been hailed as the first interplanetary probe launched by an Arab state: the Mars-bound “Hope.”

The unmanned orbiter is meant to offer inspiration for the region’s youth, collect critical scientific data on the red planet, and present the ambitious Gulf nation as a tech-savvy exception in a region mired in conflict.

Yet Monday’s launch, promoted heavily on social media in English and Arabic, was realized not in the Middle East but in Japan, blasted off by a Mitsubishi-made rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center and brought to fruition with guiding support from veteran US research labs.

Harnessing recent developments in space technology, the privatization and commercialization of the global space sector, and the eager contracting of various space agencies, corporations, and academic institutes, the oil-rich UAE in recent years has been able to pursue celestial feats beyond its current capabilities.

The Emirates Mars Mission is not the solo feat required to elevate the UAE to the club of space-faring nations, or put it on par with nearby Israel or neighboring Iran. It is also a markedly different journey than a 1960s effort by the Lebanese Rocket Society, a homegrown effort by Haigazian University students in Beirut, which managed to fire a rocket to near satellite level before being derailed by regional politics and instability.

The resources deployed, prestigious collaborations secured, and ambitious agenda of an eventual Mars landing suggest the Emirati leadership will do what it takes to fast-track their program to success.

‘Knowledge transfer’

“Collaboration and knowledge transfer have been key to the development of the Emirates Mars Mission,” said Omran Sharaf, project director of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, in a University of Arizona press release.

Sharaf commended the Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University for “delivering an extraordinary instrument,” the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS), one of three research tools aboard the Hope orbiter.

While the instrument’s name gives full credit to the UAE, it was “developed by Philip Christensen of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration with Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, according to a press release, which names Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre as a partner.

The Hope also carries a multiband camera called the Emirates eXploration Imager, which will measure water, ice, ozone, and other properties found on Mars, and the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer, which will measure characteristics of the red planet’s thermosphere, hydrogen and oxygen corona.

“Both [instruments] were developed at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space physics (LASP) at University of Colorado, Boulder,” a CU Boulder statement said.

The car-sized orbiter itself was constructed on the Boulder campus.

The University of Colorado proudly announced that its researchers had since 2014 worked “side-by-side with dozens of young scientists and engineers from the UAE to help them make this mission a reality.”

It deemed the launch a “big moment” for its Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “For LASP, the Emirates Mars Mission is the latest step in more than 70 years spent exploring the solar system,” it said.

This picture taken with a fisheye lens on January 20, 2020 shows Emiratis at the planetarium of the Centre for Astronomy and Space Science in Sharjah. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

‘Build, not buy’

Despite the heavy outside collaboration and support, involving hundreds of US-based scientists, the UAE’s aim is to “build it, not buy it,” according to Sharaf.

This objective suggests authorities in Abu Dhabi view these collaborations as a way to fast-track the nation’s entry into the prestigious club of space-faring nations.

“There are multiple stories of Emirates engineers who started on the program with perhaps little experience in aerospace,” said Pete Withnell, program manager for the Emirates Mars Mission at LASP in Boulder. Later, these participants “ended up defending complex spacecraft subsystems and designs in front of seasoned review panels.”

In the past half-decade, the Emirates’ civilian space program, in collaboration with international partners, has put a cluster of satellites in orbit and sent its first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, to the International Space Station and back.

US companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman have signed partnerships with Emirati institutions such as Khalifa University, the American University of Sharjah, and UAE University, providing expertise for space engineering programs aiming to educate a new generation of Emirati space sector hopefuls.

At present, the UAE’s probe is one of three currently racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.

Only the United States, India, the former Soviet Union, and the European Space Agency have successfully sent missions to orbit Mars, while China is preparing to launch its first Mars rover later this month.

Hope is designed to reach Mars’s orbit by February 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE, an alliance of seven emirates.

A staunch US ally, the Emirates has previously been dubbed “little Sparta” for its outsized ambitions and military footprint, currently extending to Libya, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

Abu Dhabi has sought to position itself as a bulwark against political Islam and sees Turkey and the Islamist agenda of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a threatening regional trend. It has pursued ties with Israel and views Iran as a regional threat, though it enjoys longstanding trade ties with its Shiite neighbor and has taken steps to cool tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.