Emirati students reach for the stars

Ahlam Al Qasim and Fatema Al Khouri have returned from a two-week internship at the Italian Space Agency and now want to help the UAE on its Mars mission.

Fatema Al Khouri said her internship at the Italian Space Agency was a step into ‘a different world’. Pawan Singh / The National
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ABU DHABI // For Ahlam Al Qasim and Fatema Al Khouri the sky isn’t the limit – they have big plans to go farther.

The Emiratis have returned from a two-week internship with the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and now hope to forge a career in the industry and play a part in the UAE’s Mars mission.

“I’ve been interested in space science ever since I was a kid,” said 19-year-old Ahlam. “I used to do my projects on the planets and the solar system and I started from there. I was especially interested in Mars.”

After pursuing arts and science in secondary school, Ahlam majored in physics at NYUAD.

“When I realised that the UAE signed the approval for the UAE Space Agency, I got really excited,” she said. “I followed up on the news and progress of the Mars mission.”

A few months later Francesco Arneodo, the head of NYUAD’s physics department, enrolled Ahlam and her classmate Fatema in a programme at the Italian agency.

“I knew they were very good students interested in space activities,” said Mr Arneodo. “So my former colleague, Roberto Battiston, who is now the president of the ISA, accepted to receive them as interns.”

The girls flew to Rome where they worked in the agency’s data centre for two weeks. “The ISA has a lot of experience on space programmes and it participates in European space agency programmes,” said Mr Arneodo.

“They manage a lot of space missions so there is a lot of knowledge, technology and experience to be learnt there.”

The young women were thrilled with the experience. “We learnt about the different satellites and how they learn from their mistakes,” 18-year-old Fatema said. “We found out how they make them more precise and increase the sensitivity of their instruments. It was very interesting.”

They now hope to be able to contribute to the UAE’s space programme. “We met researchers and scientists from all over - the US, Brazil and the Czech Republic,” Ahlam said.

“I want to do something which will give my country the best possible development, especially since they have a very short time period before 2021 [when the UAE intends to send an unmanned space probe to Mars] so I want to find out in what ways I can be the most useful to them.”

Fatema plans to apply to the US next year to further her studies. “I want to become a researcher or a scientist and discover something about the universe then come back and help develop the UAE,” she said. “I really like the field because I feel it is a different world. There are many secrets ready to be discovered and I think you can find many of them there.”

Ahlam hopes to enter a two-month summer internship in the US next year. “It’s pretty competitive and they only accept two students per year,” she said.

“After my experience at the ISA, I was wondering whether it would be more beneficial for me and the UAE Space Agency to gain more experience and intern somewhere like the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, which is an underground physics lab in Italy that we visited when there.

“It was very enlightening and I thought we could learn a lot from there that we could apply or benefit in terms of knowledge here in the UAE so I’ll decide by end of the year.”