UAE to send palm tree seeds into space

Seeds will blast off on a SpaceX rocket for the International Space Station this week

An Emirati holds up a freshly-picked date during the annual Liwa Date Festival in the western region of Liwa, south of Abu Dhabi on July 18, 2019.  The Liwa Date Festival aims to preserve Emirati heritage, specifically palm trees and half-ripe dates, knows as "ratab", which are deep-rooted in the Gulf country's traditions. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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The palm is one of the UAE’s most prized trees. Its fruit fed generations of people for thousands of years, while its trunk and leaves were used to build homes.

Now the palm is blasting off on a new chapter as the UAE is to send its seeds into orbit on the International Space Station.

The seeds will lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Wednesday at 6.24pm [2.24am on Thursday UAE time] on a Falcon 9 rocket. Operated by SpaceX – the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk – the rocket will carry the Dragon cargo capsule to the ISS.  

This is about the same time Earth's rotation brings Cape Canaveral under the ISS's orbital path. If all goes well, it will dock at the weekend.

The seeds will spend two months onboard and then be returned to Earth for planting here. Any changes the seeds underwent while in orbit will be important to researchers.

The project will study how the seeds react to being in space, their ability to absorb water in a weightless environment, and examine the potential for planting them in martian environments.

The UAE has said it will build a human settlement on Mars by 2117 and is working on replicating these conditions back on Earth through its "Mars Scientific City", which is under construction near Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. It is also hoped the research with the palm seeds will benefit these aims.

“We are experimenting on palm seeds as they are usually planted in circumstances similar to the martian environment,” said Rashid Al Zaabi, the project supervisor. “Palm trees are deeply rooted in the UAE’s heritage and are the oldest trees in the region. Should this experiment succeed, palm trees and the UAE name will be linked to great success in the space sector,” he said.

The research also aims to shed light on the challenges of food security in space. It will tackle some of the issues that we face on Earth, especially in countries with harsh weather conditions and water scarcity such as the UAE.

This experiment forms a part of the "palm in space" project that explores the potential of planting palms on Mars. The UAE Space Agency launched the project as a part of its activities to recognise UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed's passion for planting palm trees.

Emirates Post shipped the seeds to the site and NanoRacks – a private space company – is responsible for conducting the experiments on the ISS.

UAE University is also involved in the project. 

Meanwhile, the UAE is preparation to send the first Emirati astronaut into space.

Former military pilot Hazza Al Mansouri will accompany Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and American Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir on board a Soyuz rocket to the ISS on September 25. There, he will carry out a series of scientific experiments, present a tour of the station in Arabic and conduct Earth observation and imaging experiences.