Emirati Minister of State for Advanced Technology Sarah al-Amiri. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

A space probe now orbiting Mars has propelled the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into a leading position among Arab states as its 34-year-old mission leader highlights the advanced role women play in the country.

The al-Amal (hope) craft arrived at Mars on February 9 and it was placed in orbit around the red planet, a maneuver that was regarded as particularly tricky.

Of particular note is the leadership provided by Sarah al-Amiri.  She is the Emirati Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, chair of the UAE Space Agency and the United Arab Emirates Council of Scientists, and deputy project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission.

Al-Amiri outlined the mission in an interview with the Planetary Society and talked at length about the empowerment the project has given scientists and engineers in the UAE.  She also is widely publicized in the Gulf States.

The Emirates Mars Mission probe was assembled in the United States at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in collaboration with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, which was founded in 2006. 

It was launched on a Japanese H-IIA rocket from the  Tanegashima Space Center.

The Hope probe weighs 1,350 kilos (2,980 lb) and is built from aluminum in a honeycomb structure and covered with composites. It is equipped with thruster engines and was launched in July last year.

Unlike their neighbor and sometime partner Saudi Arabia, the UAE takes an entirely different approach to the role of women in society. The UAE constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women.

Women enjoy the same legal status, access to education, the right to practice professions, and the right to inherit property as men. 

Governmental employment for Emirati women has increased from 11.6% in 1995 to 66% in 2007. Female university students are more than double male enrolments.  Women comprise 70% of college graduates.

In the UAE there is a mandatory female presence on boards of directors in all government entities and corporations.  There is government-approved maternity leave, laws on equal wages for women and men, and protection for working women.

In the Hope project, women make up 34% of the launch team.

The mission aims to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the Mars atmosphere. The probe will be the first weather satellite for Mars. Its scientific objectives were worked out with NASA in the US.

The Hope project has generated huge excitement in the UAE and symbolizes the growing importance of the country as a leader in the Arab world and beyond.