The moon has a tantalising relationship with humanity. It has lured our imaginations into its orbit for millennia, but only in the past century have we managed to extend our reach far enough to touch its surface. The first lunar footprint, made by Neil Armstrong in 1969, was a turning point for our species.
These days, Earth’s lifeless satellite is the domain of robots and rovers, technological surrogates for our lofty ambition. The latest of these, the UAE’s Rashid Rover, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday – a day which also happens to mark 50 years since the lunar landing of Apollo 17, the last time humans visited the moon.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who was in the control room to watch the successful launch, said: "reaching the moon is another milestone in the ambitious march of a country and a nation whose aspirations have no limits."
"Passing on knowledge, developing our capabilities, and adding a scientific footprint in human history is or goal," said Sheikh Mohammed.
The Rashid rover, designed and built over five years at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, weighs just 10 kilograms. Its slight physique, however, belies its hefty scientific value. The rover’s primary mission, assisted by a specialised probe, is to study lunar dust.
As the Apollo astronauts first discovered, this toxic, silicate-rich layer of particles poses a significant challenge for manned lunar missions. As fine as powder but sharp as glass, it has the power to corrode equipment and eat away at space suits over time. Scientists worry that future plans to establish a permanent presence on the moon could be compromised by these particles. The constant bombardment of the lunar surface by solar radiation causes them to become electrostatically charged, making them unusually “sticky”. When it makes its descent in about five months’ time, Rashid will endeavour to learn more about the dust’s qualities and help scientists understand what to do about them.
Rashid’s launch was made possible with the help of a Falcon 9 re-usable rocket from SpaceX, and the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, built by the Japanese company Ispace. The lander’s payload, in addition to the Rashid rover, includes a Japanese robot and experimental equipment from Japanese and Canadian firms.
The mission’s timing in line with the Apollo 17 landing anniversary is coincidental – the December 11 launch date came after a delay – but fortuitous nonetheless. It underscores the fact that this mission is ultimately about getting people back to the moon, and not just temporarily. As Takeshi Hakamada, Ispace’s chief executive, remarked before the launch, the mission represents the “dawn of the lunar economy”. One day, Ispace hopes to see permanent human settlements on the moon – a critical stepping stone to the UAE’s vision to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2117.
The Rashid Rover is also significant for more earthly reasons. Sunday’s lunar mission is the first in the Arab world’s history. When it reaches its destination, it will have participated in the first controlled moon landing ever undertaken completed a private company. If terrestrial benefits from a “lunar economy” are ever to be realised, it will be critical for countries around the world – including those in the Middle East – to get involved, and for them to do so in partnership with the private sector.
As the renowned cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees wrote in The National in November, “the romance of human spaceflight is undimmed”, but the use of rovers will prove instrumental in ensuring that such dreams can be achieved in a new chapter of space exploration safely. The Rashid rover is only the latest small step, but it is a step taken very much with the giant leap in mind.