The UAE's Hope Probe is estimated to be 30 days away from reaching Mars. The scope of its mission makes it one of the most important in recent years and a major scientific achievement. After a year that has buffeted the world with bad news – and a less-than-hopeful start to 2021 – the probe's mission offers a reminder to humanity to pause and look up.
Covid-19 emerged early last year. Not long afterwards, much of the world was in lockdown. People were glued to government press conferences detailing spiralling infection and death rates. There were glimmers of positivity, pinned especially on the possibility that vaccines would liberate us from restrictions on movement. The first vaccines have been realised earlier that expected, with multiple countries releasing jabs at an unprecedented rate. This was a seminal achievement that will go down in history. However, the world is not out of the woods yet, as we increasingly discover the huge logistical challenges of inoculating people.
Last year, therefore, was not one in which we looked much to the far future. Instead, the world was preoccupied with the daily challenge of remaining level in such difficult times and bracing for tomorrow.
But beyond tomorrow, foundations are being laid for better days. In the GCC, this includes last week's signing of the Al Ula statement, carving a path for normal relations with Qatar and re-establishing unity in the Gulf.
Further afield, the Hope Probe reminds us that even as the world is at a standstill, humanity is still breaking new ground in astonishing ways. The mission's primary objective is to capture data on Mars's atmosphere over a two-year period, taking the first photo of the entire planet in history.
This riveting process has already racked up some astonishing numbers. The spacecraft has travelled a total distance of almost 500 million kilometres. The technical challenge is huge, and a testament to the ambition of the 200-strong team of Emirati engineers behind the project. To illustrate just one part of the challenge, the probe will imminently need to reduce its speed from 121,000 km per hour to 18,000 kph in just half an hour, burning a huge amount of fuel as it enters the planet's atmosphere.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said in November that the project means that the nation is now a culture that prioritises science in shaping its future. In terms of the wider Arab world, if successful, the mission makes the UAE the first country in the region to explore a planet.
For those interested in this seminal project, the mission's current journey statistics can be viewed online. Once in orbit, all data from the mission will be published for free.
In 1969, when Nasa published photos taken by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of the Earth from the surface of the Moon, a wave of emotion swept the globe. People saw how small our planet is in the greater scheme of things.
If this year continues to challenge us as 2020 did, perhaps we could turn to the new generation of space explorers in 2021 who are pushing the boundaries of human excellence, giving us source a of hope above and beyond what we know today.