Ibrahim Al Qasim: UAE Mars Mission aims to inspire youth

With nations worldwide vying to reach Mars, the United Arab Emirates is joining the race, with the aim of developing it’s scientific and technological capabilities as well as inspire the region’s youth. Ibrahim Hamza Al Qasim, the mission’s Deputy Project Manager for Strategic Planning, talks to Vision about the project. 

There are more than 70 scientists working on getting the UAE to Mars. If successful, this would be the first Arab mission to another planet. The global space industry is valued at US$300 billion and is witnessing a growth of 8 per cent per year. The UAE’s space investments currently exceed AED20 billion.

Managed by an Emirati team, the Emirates Mars Mission seeks to build a core capability to develop and share the UAE’s space knowledge base. The goal is to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021 and provide the first comprehensive study of the planet’s atmosphere. The team is also working with international universities and research institutes to develop the mission’s science and analyse mission findings and data.

Ibrahim Al Qasim, Emirates Mars Mission Deputy Project Manager, Strategic Planning, oversees the education and media outreach programme at the Mohammed bin Rashid Science Centre. He also works with universities and high schools to develop space research initiatives.

Vision: How did the mission start and at what stage is it now?

Ibrahim Al Qasim: The Mohammed bin Rashid Science Centre started about 10 years ago and was established to act as a catalyst for the science and technology sector in Dubai. We were originally established as the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science Technology (EIAST) and our main area of focus was space.

Space is a very inclusive and multi-disciplinary sector and developing our space capabilities would allow for a competitive science and technology sector. Our first ever mission was DUBAI SAT 1. It took three years to develop and it was a joint partnership with a South Korean company called Satrec Initiative.

Three years after the establishment of the centre, DUBAI SAT 1 was launched into orbit and was out into a 680km orbit and operated here from Dubai. Our second mission was DUBAI SAT 2 and it was a continuous capacity building effort.

Eventually our third and final stage of capacity building was KHALIFA SAT and right about the same time that it was kicked off His Highness [Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of UAE and Ruler of Dubai] announced that the UAE was going to push for a Mars exploration mission that is going to be designed, developed and managed by The Mohammed bin Rashid Science Centre.

We have a lot of education programmes. We ran competitions and developed the UAE’s first CubeSat mission with engineering students from the American University of Sharjah. However, the main difference between the Mars mission and all our previous missions is the focus on developing our scientific capabilities. So far, we have invested a lot in developing engineering skills and in how to design and develop spacecraft for earth observation, but the Mars mission pushed us beyond that comfort zone to focus on a bigger industry.

V: How would you describe the innovations coming out of the project?

IAQ: Innovation is definitely a very broad term, but you can call the approach we took to building a science and technology sector an innovative approach. It’s very rare that you see a country with the objective of building its science and technology capabilities in order to go to Mars. But in terms of technical innovation, I think a lot of our missions have their unique and distinguished contributions to the sector. The CubeSat mission has an active attitude control system, for example.

V: Are you collaborating with any international institutions?

IAQ: Our choice of partners for the Mars mission has been LASP [Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics] which is a research centre within the University of Colorado; SSL [Space Sciences Lab], a research lab at the University of California Berkeley; and Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration. Those are our only partners at this stage.

V: How is the mission being funded?

IAQ: The Mars mission was announced by the federal government’s cabinet and it is funded by the federal government. All of our missions, except for the Mars mission, have been local government missions.

V: What does it mean for a small country such as the UAE to make it to Mars?

IAQ: I think it’s very special that the UAE, given its position in the region, has aimed to develop a mission to Mars. I think that it’s an excellent example for what the youth of the region can aim and aspire to become. It’s special for anyone to go to Mars, but to do so for many different reasons such as it’s strategic implications on the economy or being an inspiration for the youth in the region is very special.