DUBAI—Universities in the United Arab Emirates have reported a boom in space studies, thanks to an ambitious space program that culminated in the success last week of the country’s Hope orbiter mission to Mars.
“We have seen a big jump in the enrollment of students, particularly Emiratis,” said Nidhal Guessoum, Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences at the American University of Sharjah.
His department was set up six years ago after the 2013 announcement of the Mars mission. The Emirates established a space agency in 2014. (See a related article, “The Arab World’s Often Overlooked Space Research.”)
“We realized that there was going to be a strong demand for physics and space courses, especially when the leaders and officials stressed that the Mars mission had greater and wider objectives: to use science (both basic and applied) as the engine of development in the drive to transform the economy into a knowledge-based one,” he said.
Interest in space also surged after Hazzaa al-Mansouri, an Emirati astronaut, became the first Arab to reach the International Space Station, in September 2019.
Women outnumber men by two to one among new students in physics and space courses, Guessoum said. He added that they saw a role model in Sarah Al-Amiri, the 33-year-old Emirati minister of state for advanced technology.
Al-Amiri was appointed chairwoman of the U.A.E. Space Agency in 2020 and thus was in ultimate charge of the Hope spacecraft’s mission to Mars.
The surge in interest among women “bodes very well for the future of the space sector in the U.A.E. and beyond, and we hope the U.A.E.’s space program will be emulated by other countries, particularly in the Arab world,” Guessoum said.
Optimism About Space Studies
Mouza Almualla, 20, an Emirati undergraduate at the American University of Sharjah, said her interest in astrophysics stemmed from watching popular television shows by scientists like Carl Sagan. “They showed me that we are constantly making astounding discoveries about our universe, and to imagine that one day I could contribute to that knowledge excited me beyond words,” she said.
Almualla feels optimistic about the opportunities in the Emirates, with a large amount of funding being poured into the sector from the government.
“The Arab world needs more researchers working in these areas, especially since astrophysics is becoming such a hot topic with the recent developments and successes of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre,” she said. “In addition to that, majoring in physics requires a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking, and so provides us with a skill-set that can be very valuable in various other fields.”