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United Arab Emirate’s Mars Probe Increases Interest in Space Studies

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.”

The impact of the recent Hope mission cannot be underestimated, Almualla said: “It’s always cool to see NASA sending probes and land rovers to Mars, but getting to witness it being done right here is a real treat, and will undoubtedly inspire many.”

Guessoum agrees. “There is no doubt that the Hope probe and the rest of the U.A.E. space program is exciting people from all walks of life and will lead to a higher status for science and greater interest in space projects,” he said. Job prospects will flourish, he said, not the least for Emiratis, across a wide range of interconnected fields.

“There is no doubt that the Hope probe and the rest of the U.A.E. space program is exciting people from all walks of life and will lead to a higher status for science and greater interest in space projects.”

Nidhal Guessoum  
Professor of physics, astronomy and space sciences at the American University of Sharjah

“The space center and the space agency will be commissioning instruments and other productions from the private sector, so some graduates who work, say, in electronics or optics or computer science/engineering (including artificial intelligence) will find themselves working indirectly on space projects,” he said.

Curiosity Among Female Students

Hessa Alsuwaidi, 20, another Emirati undergraduate, is already sure she wishes to pursue a career in space. “Since I was a little girl, I have always been curious about the stars and the universe, so by majoring in physics, I am able to take courses in astrophysics and space sciences and understand fundamentally the physics behind shining stars and the wonders of the universe as a whole,” she said.

She predicted that the success of the Hope mission would encourage more students to enroll in the STEM disciplines, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I have personally never been more excited and certain about the future of STEM majors than I am after the historical event that occurred recently,” she said, adding that she had no doubt that more students will engage and participate and hopefully undertake bachelor’s degrees not only in physics/astrophysics, but in STEM fields in general.”

Not all Arab countries have the U.A.E.’s financial strength to start a space program. According to the country’s leading English-language daily The National, the cost of the Hope probe, from its conception to its design, construction and launch, amounted to 735 million dirhams, or $200 million.

“Physics is one of the essential study areas of any university, and astrophysics and space science are the research areas in which our physics faculty is presently stronger.”

Francesco Arneodo  
Associate dean of science and professor of physics at NYU–Abu Dhabi

The ‘Physics Boom’

Both private and public universities are joining the “mission,” including the United Arab Emirates University and the University of Sharjah.

In the capital, the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University has jumped on the enthusiasm for space study to add an astrophysics component to its physics degree. It has seen annual enrollments rise from three or four two years ago to up to 12.

It has also set up complementary research centers: one for space science, the other for “astro, particle and planetary physics.”

“Physics is one of the essential study areas of any university, and astrophysics and space science are the research areas in which our physics faculty is presently stronger,” said Francesco Arneodo, associate dean of science and professor of physics at NYU–Abu Dhabi.  “It was only natural to leverage on that asset to create the research centers and offer a specialization.”

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Khalifa University’s Space Technology and Innovation Center has become a technical hub for the emerging space industry. It is now training students, the majority of them Emirati, in satellite design and manufacturing and to conduct scientific research in space sector and applications, to support the work of the U.A.E. Space Agency. It is also home to the Yahsat Space Lab, which is run with the Masdar Institute, and was established in 2017 to support the CubeSat programs at Emirati universities in general and the Khalifa University Space Systems programs in particular.

As the Hope orbiter keeps beaming back images in its quest to create the first complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, student excitement may continue to build and Emirati academic departments related to space science may keep expanding.

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