'Moon is the first step' to a city on Mars, says top Emirati space official

In interviews with 'The National', top space officials say sending the Rashid rover to the Moon in 2022 is only the beginning

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Work to achieve the UAE's long-term goal of a city on Mars by 2117 has already started, with a lunar mission in progress and a spacecraft in the Red Planet's orbit.

The UAE hopes to send missions to the lunar surface in the coming years that will help to pave the way for a mission to Mars with Emirati astronauts.

Last week, the Emirates announced a partnership with a Japanese firm called ispace to deliver its first lunar rover, Rashid, to the Moon.

"We always say that the Moon is the first step in developing science technologies, building our capabilities," said Adnan Al Rais, director of the Mars 2117 programme at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.

We always say that the Moon is the first step in developing science technologies, building our capabilities

"Not only the robotics but also the human aspects as well, so one day we’ll be capable of sending humans to Mars."

US space agency Nasa and some private companies are developing and updating technology to land humans on the Moon.

Ispace said it plans to have 1,000 humans living on a Moon colony by 2040.

Nasa, which is using SpaceX’s Starship rocket to land the next humans on the surface, is also working with its international partners to build the Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting station from which astronauts would travel to Mars.

In 2017, the UAE announced its goal of building a human settlement on Mars within 100 years.

The National spoke with Mr Al Rais and project manager of the Emirates Lunar Mission, Hamad Al Marzooqi, on steps taken since then.

Moon surface and Earth on the horizon. Space art fantasy. Black and white. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Mission to the Moon

Next year, the Rashid rover will be sent to the Moon aboard ispace’s Hakuto-R spacecraft. It will lift off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre.

One of the rover’s main objectives will be to study properties of lunar regolith, space dust, that sticks to an astronaut’s suit or a spacecraft, creating a hazard for essential technical components.

It will test materials that could prevent the dust from sticking and help develop more effective suits for astronauts.

Once Rashid is launched, it will spend one lunar day, or 29.5 Earth days, taking more than 1,000 images and sending back data.

The mission cannot last any longer, as the rover would freeze over during a lunar night, when temperatures drop to minus 180°C.

Mr Al Marzooqi said the UAE does not have the technology required to keep the rover alive during the night.

“There is a technology that will allow the spacecraft or the rover to heat its electronics during the lunar night,” he said.

"That technology is not accessible to every nation. We're talking about radioisotope heaters, which are nuclear devices. Only American missions and a few others use them.

"This is why most lunar missions have a target of only one lunar day.”

However, Mr Al Marzooqi said the timeframe is sufficient to gather substantial data.

The MBRSC team would have access to the rover 24 hours each day.

“It means that we can maximise the amount of data that would be generated,” he said.

"We believe, for a small machine like this, the amount of data is huge and can be used substantially for studies."

The UAE’s next mission to the Moon could be in 2024.

“In 2024, that would be hopefully, perhaps, the next rover,” Mr Al Rais said.

“By that time, we might have other partners or we’ll continue with ispace for that. We’ll know when we start working on the follow-up mission.

Sending humans next

The UAE is already partnering private companies to gain access to space technology needed to launch its missions.

Its engineers worked with US-based universities to develop its Mars orbiter Hope. A Japanese rocket launched the spacecraft, while Nasa’s Deep Space Network helps Emirati engineers and scientists communicate with it.

The Emirates also signed the Nasa-led Artemis Accords, which outline responsible Moon exploration.

Adnan Al Rais says the UAE has already shown it can achieve its space ambitions. Courtesy: MBRSC

"With regards to sending humans to the surface of the Moon, this is something that we'll always be exploring in terms of who our partners are and how and when we're going to do that," Mr Al Rais said.

“Public-private partnership is a key for the development of any economy and programme, and this has been our approach since day one.”

Nasa has partnered SpaceX to send its next astronauts to the Moon, while China and Russia have teamed up to build a lunar research station.

“We are open to collaborate with everyone including China, Russia and other nations,” Mr Al Rais said.

The UAE has not announced which entity it would partner to send Emiratis to the Moon or exactly when it will happen.

A city on Mars

Astrophysicists have criticised Elon Musk's plan to colonise Mars.

Britain’s Martin Rees and the US’s Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed pessimism last month, saying his goal was unrealistic.

Mr Musk plans to send a million people to Mars by 2050 using his Starship fleet.

Mr Al Rais said the goal behind the UAE’s Mars 2117 programme is to develop technology that could be used to benefit humanity on Earth, such as improving water and food security.

“Our long-term strategy is to send humans to the surface of Mars and building a settlement on Mars. The objective here is not to build the first hotel or mosque there, but to study the science and technologies that could help us here,” he said.

The UAE has placed a greater focus on improving its water and food security because of the region’s dry and hot climate.

Its Hope probe is also studying how Mars lost its atmosphere, making it impossible for life to exist there.

It is believed the Red Planet used to be like Earth billions of years ago.

Scientists have been trying to learn how the planet died and if Earth might possibly face the same fate.