Hope springs anew for Arab science with launch of Mars probe

UAE scientists want the dramatic space venture to prove a source of inspiration for all

Powered by automated translation

The UAE's Hope probe is due to blast off on its momentous mission to Mars on July 15.

If all goes well, the spacecraft will travel 60 million kilometres across the solar system and arrive at the Red Planet next year.

For all those involved in the operation's conception and planning, the mission represents dozens of milestone achievements.

But more than that, scientists in the UAE hope the project will further rekindle a passion for learning and exploration right across the Arab and Muslim world.

As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, put it only this month, “Our journey to space represents a message of hope to every Arab citizen that we have the innovation, resilience and efforts to compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge”.

The Hope probe will be the first spacecraft from any Muslim country to visit Mars. The discoveries it makes about the planet’s atmosphere will be shared freely with the world.

But for Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah, the significance of Hope goes way beyond the science.

[The] Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again

“There is going to be good science, but the objective is not really the science,” he said. “The objective is to catalyse this generation.

“I have always been happy that the officials of the UAE have stressed this is an Arab mission, not just an Emirati mission or a Gulf mission.

"This is for the Arabs, and the Arab world, to bring it into the space age.”

The Arab Muslim world was once at the forefront of astronomy and science.

For nearly a thousand years, Arab scientists searched the heavens and deciphered their mysteries.

As Europe descended into the so-called Dark Ages in the 7th century, Arabs were emerging into the light, and there are clues in some of the words we still use today.

These include the astronomical term "azimuth", the word "algebra" – literally, the reunion of broken parts  and "algorithm", the Latinised version of the last name of Mohammed ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi, a scholar at Baghdad’s House of Wisdom in the 8th Century.

Al Khwarizmi lived during the period known as the Islamic Golden Age.

The countdown to the Mars launch has begun

The countdown to the Mars launch has begun

Its origins can be found in the conversion of the Arab world to Islam by the Prophet Mohammed and its expansion into and influence on territories that reached across north Africa into Spain and east into what was then Persia and the Indian subcontinent.

Scholars generally believe it was the tenets and obligations of Islam that led to this quest for scientific knowledge.

A frequently quoted hadith translates as: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.”

There was also the need to calculate accurately the time of important religious festivals like Ramadan, Eid and Hajj, and the ability to find the exact direction of Makkah from anywhere in the world.

This last task requires what is known as spherical trigonometry, first developed by the Egyptians more than 4,000 years ago, but refined by mathematicians like Al Khwarizmi and Abu Al Wafa, who worked at the House of Wisdom in the 10th Century.

Prof Guessoum says another theory is that Muslim scientists simply wanted to understand the world.

“The better you know, the more you understand, the more you are an enlightened Muslim,” he says.

Added to that was the existing body of knowledge Muslim Arabs encountered as they began their territorial expansion.

“They quickly realised there was a huge scientific heritage, that these guys had done a lot of work, and some Muslim rulers said: ‘Why not us’? Why should they be ahead of us?’

"So they started to support and patronise scientists.”

Whatever the roots of this Golden Age, the results were spectacular, and in no area more so than in astronomy.

Arab scientists soon set about dismantling the theories of Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 2nd Century.

By the 9th Century, the astronomer Al Farghani had recalculated Ptolemy’s circumference of the Earth, measurements that would be later used by Christopher Columbus – although he confused the longer Arabic mile with the shorter European mile and so first believed that he had sailed to Asia rather than the Americas.

Ptolemy’s assertion that the Earth was in a fixed position at the centre of the universe was also challenged, with the gradual realisation that it actually rotated on an axis.

Muslim astronomers mapped the stars and planets visible from Earth, calculating their movement and appearance across the seasons.

They refined the sundial so it could be used to indicate prayer times at mosques and built highly sophisticated astrolabes, mechanical devices used by astronomers to identify stars and planets.

Of even more importance was the use of the astrolabe by navigators to determine their position anywhere in the world.

An engineer works on the Hope Probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. Wam
An engineer works on the Hope Probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. Wam

The stars and planets were viewed from observatories, like those of Damascus and Baghdad, although without telescopes, which did not appear until the 16th century, in Europe.

By then, the Golden Age was over.

Its end has been blamed on many factors, from political and economic decline to the rise of rigid ideology less friendly to scientific inquiry.

Innovation passed to the West, with the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, followed by the European colonisation of Arab lands.

For Prof Geussoum, whose Arabic YouTube channel on space science has more than 300,000 subscribers, says this decline is measured by the almost complete absence of large telescopes and observatories in Muslim Arab countries today.

Building new observatories is something he has pushed for over many years, writing in a 2013 article for Nature magazine: “Large projects in this field can inspire the science and technology community, the education sector and the public, and shift attitudes towards basic research in general.”

Announcing the Hope mission in July, 2014, Sheikh Mohammed said: “The first message is for the world: that Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again; the second message is to our Arab brethren: that nothing is impossible.”

Technical specifications of UAE's mission to Mars. Ramon Peñas / The National
Technical specifications of UAE's mission to Mars. Ramon Peñas / The National

For the Arab people, Prof Guessoum compares this moment to the historic speech by President John F Kennedy in 1962, in which he said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Speaking to the international media last month, Hope project director Omar Sharaf said: “It will be a message not just to Emirati youth, but to Arab youth.

“This is a region that more than 800 years ago used to be a generator of knowledge, an example of co-existence and co-operation, of people of differing faiths building the region.

"The moment we stopped doing that, we went backwards.”

When the first Emirati astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, went into space last September, Prof Guessoum watched the launch on television with a high school class for girls.

“I saw right there the impact, the effect,” he says. “The pride that it inspired in people.

“Imagine if sending an astronaut to the space station has that kind of impact on the youth already, then sending a spacecraft to Mars – I am really hoping that the entire Arab world will adopt it and feel part of it and that it will inspire them.”

A look back at when Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati man in space