The UAE's larger space missions are on track

The moon rover success may have been deferred but Sultan Al Neyadi's space walk is likely to yield promising results

The Mission Control Centre at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, Dubai. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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It's not easy to land on the moon. Countries would attempt it more often if the task were simple and a positive outcome guaranteed. The UAE's unmanned lunar touchdown was always going to be challenging – not least because of the technological complexity of manoeuvring a 10kg rover on the surface of an object 382,500 kilometres from Earth, with a different gravitational force. It is no wonder that half of all moon-landing missions don't succeed.

Hamad Al Marzooqi, the Emirates Lunar Mission manager, explained the risks of this week’s hotly anticipated landing attempt. Even so, however, the disappointment that the Emirati team of scientists and engineers must have experienced since loss of contact with it on Tuesday – caused by presumed crash of the Japanese Hakuto-R Mission 1 spacecraft transporting – is all too human and understandable. And yet, the result of this particular mission is important to take in stride. It may not have touched down – this time – but the Rashid rover was the first Arab spacecraft to enter lunar orbit, which is just one of several feats that have already been accomplished in a nascent space programme, only a decade old.

And the scientific labour of the past five years will still function as a crucial building block in further projects and for the next time the UAE sends a rover to the moon to study the unexplored planet. This has already been announced.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said on Wednesday that Rashid 2 would be developed and sent to space. The ambition of the UAE is noteworthy and Sheikh Mohammed's words are uplifting: "We are a country founded on ambition," he said. "We are a country that has not stopped since December 2, 1971. It will not stop. It will not turn around. It will not set small goals for itself.”

A particularly significant goal, the country hopes, will be achieved on Friday. The 41-year-old Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi is set to step out of the International Space Station to undertake a six-hour spacewalk. If he succeeds, he will become the first Arab astronaut to do so. He will venture outside the ISS with Stephen Bowen, one of his Nasa colleagues, wearing an extravehicular activity suit that weighs 127 kg. The spacewalk is meant largely to be a maintenance exercise for the duo, who will, among other tasks, retrieve foot restraints – stable platforms to stand on when they need to work outside the spacecraft – from different parts of the space station's exterior. What would be a relatively mundane task on Earth is, in the vacuum of space, a carefully planned and well-rehearsed mission.

As The National wrote in these pages on Monday, this is a momentous week for the UAE in space. And even as success for the moon rover is deferred, the declaration to try again is a testament to the seriousness of the country's space ambition. The UAE’s unwillingness to rest on the laurels of past achievements – from satellite missions to orbiting Mars – speaks for itself.

Published: April 28, 2023, 2:00 AM