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The Arab World’s Often Overlooked Space Research

DOHA—The Arab astronomers of medieval times were pioneers at the height of an Islamic golden age of science. Their scholarship of the skies was ground-breaking. It was a time when Arab mathematicians were arguably the most advanced in the world.

That nostalgic narrative, however, has overshadowed achievements that have been made in recent times, says Jörg Matthias Determann, a professor of the history of science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. “I’d like to counter these assumptions.”

That was the motivation that led Determann to write his recent book, Space Science and the Arab World, published in December 2017.

While the book is unlikely to convince readers that Arab nations present any real challenge to NASA’s supremacy in space exploration and science, it will open their eyes to an area of research in the Middle East that is often overlooked.

“Not many historians have looked at modern space science in the Arab world,” says Determann. “There is a huge gap in the literature. I found this field to be wide open.”

Back in 1985, the Saudi royal and astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Arab to fly in space, orbiting Earth on the shuttle Discovery, evidence that the region had an ambition to play a role in space research. Since then, researchers mainly in the Gulf states have continued to make breakthroughs in space science.

This research is mainly in two areas: satellite technology and the discovery of distant planets.

For example, the United Arab Emirates has announced plans to build the world’s first human colony on Mars by 2117. Colonizing Mars may be a far-off dream, but other parts of the project are more realistic.

“It’s not really all about humans on Mars,” says Determann. “For example, they are currently trying to get a satellite into Mars’ atmosphere.”

Meanwhile researchers in Qatar have discovered six new exoplanets since 2010—planets belonging to a solar system other than our own. Astronomers of the Qatar Exoplanet Survey found an exoplanet as recently as December of last year.

Khalid al-Subai, senior research director of special projects at Hamad bin Khalifa University, runs the Qatar Exoplanet Survey. His work is highlighted in Determann’s book.

“We’re looking for planets that are really far away,” says al-Subai. “It’s a new science, and less than 20 years ago we were really suspicious of the concept of exoplanets because there was no prior proof.”

Determann’s book is a valuable resource, says al-Subai. “It’s one of the only sources if you want to read about progress in my field in the Arab world. Much is known about the golden age, but there’s nothing to update us.”

Part of the attraction for Gulf states to pursue ambitious projects like missions to Mars or searches to discover new celestial bodies is because they confer prestige, says Determann.

“There is a sense of nationalism to it,” he says. In other words, it feels good to once again have Arab astronomers at the forefront of their science.

But these projects “are about more than vanity,” he says. “It’s about the knowledge economy and the need to get young people interested in science.”

The pace and expansion of space research in the Gulf is proof, says Determann, that the region has more to offer the field than just a historical context.


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