On Tuesday, Omran Sharaf, the project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission, stood in a control room at the UAE Space Agency’s headquarters in Dubai, surrounded by a team of young engineers, and addressed his fellow Emiratis, Arabs and the entire Islamic world. “We have arrived in orbit around the Red Planet,” he said, referring to the Hope probe, which had reached the end of its 480 million km journey to Mars.
The moment added to the constellation of Arab history’s relationship with the stars. Many scientists and astronomers have called the region home throughout the ages. The eighth century scientist Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al Farazi was the first Arab to construct an astrolabe, while another Middle Eastern astronomer, Al-Battani, established the mathematical logic that led to the device's invention. Since the region’s ancient times, Bedouins and merchant sailors alike relied on celestial navigation to find their way in the world.
Now, a team of physicists and engineers in Dubai has helped the Arab world find its way around it.
The Hope probe's name connects the mission to humanity's wider desire for a better future, but on Tuesday, the hopes of Arabs took centre stage. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, called the success a "significant Arab and Emirati achievement".
All is not well in today's Middle East. But we cannot underestimate the impact that an individual nation’s victory in a single moment of space and time can have on today's youth in the region, even for those of them faced with immense difficulties.
Tuesday's breakthrough was projected to the world as a journey of “Arabs to Mars”, a reminder that as one nation reaches a frontier, the hope is that many others will follow. But the mission's wider objectives were never just limited to advancing in outer space. It also brought progress on Earth. The UAE's Space Pioneers Programme, which supports the next wave of talented Arab astronomers, engineers and astrophysicists, recently announced its first intake. The participants are from Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the Comoros.
The generation that has realised the Hope probe’s mission is preparing the reins of responsibility for the one that comes after. An achievement as significant as Tuesday's, in a year that the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary, is a bridge between the progress of the nation's opening era and its next, which will culminate in 2071's centenary. The Mars Mission has shown young Emiratis the pace they need to maintain for the next five decades leading up to this milestone. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, personally thanked the team, telling them that “the course of life is what one generation passes to another”. This chain started with the nation’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, who expressed hopes that the UAE would explore space in the 1970s.
It is also demonstrating the importance of a diversified, knowledge-based economy, which led to the Hope probe's success. Strong economies advance understanding in scientific fields, and that progress feeds back into a more advanced economy – not just in one country, but the world over. Hope was joined by probes from two other nations, China and the US, who have long understood the powerful role of science in advancing human civilisation.
Maintaining Hope’s legacy will require diligence. But for now, new hope for the Middle East has been planted above another world.
In a region where conflict dominates headlines all too often, the Mars Mission represents a rare type of victory, in which there is no defeated party, only victors.