U.A.E. plans Arab world’s first mission to Mars

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The government of the United Arab Emirates announced Wednesday the creation of its own space agency and its plan to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021. The probe's journey to Mars would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the U.A.E.'s independence from Britain in 1971. "We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the country's vice president.

On Twitter, al-Maktoum said the country's investment in space technologies already eclipsed $5 billion. He heralded the occasion in a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, ending with a video (embedded below) showing a computer-animated simulation of what the Martian voyage would look like.

The oil-rich Gulf state is never short on hubris. It's home to the next iterations of global museums like the Louvre and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and the world's tallest building and busiest airport for international travelers in Dubai. The royal family in Abu Dhabi has even plowed national wealth into owning and improving the reigning English soccer champions, Manchester City.

The U.A.E. has long wanted to launch a type of pan-Arab space agency, not unlike its real equivalent in Europe, and today's news lays a marker down for the rest of the region. As al-Maktoum's tweets indicate, the U.A.E.'s rulers see their foray into space as almost a return to the glories of the distant past, when the scientific discoveries of the Islamic world far surpassed those of a Christendom locked in the Dark Ages. But it enters a crowded field when it comes to Mars exploration.

The United States, of course, already has its own Curiosity Rover foraging across the Red Planet. China plans to send its own vehicle to the surface of Mars by 2020. (An unmanned Chinese probe destined for Mars got lost soon after launching in 2011.) India, with a far smaller GDP per capita than U.A.E., has a probe en route to Mars right now, expected to reach orbit by the middle of September. The U.S. as well as Japan are both working toward manned missions to Mars in the next few decades.

Set against that, the U.A.E.'s plans appear a bit more humble, but it is a shot across the bow — or at least the Persian Gulf — at regional rival Iran. The most noteworthy accomplishment of Tehran's space program has been the launching of monkeys into space.

The development of space rivalry would run parallel to more immediate concerns. The U.A.E. is vehemently opposed to Iran having the capability of building nuclear weapons. Its own nuclear-energy program is credited with being one of the "best resourced" ventures of its kind in the world.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Ishaan Tharoor · July 16