Since humans first recognised the difference between the “fixed” stars and the roving planets, Mars has fascinated scientists and romantics alike. It is large to the naked eye – only the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Venus look bigger – and, famously, it is red. By the late 1800s, telescopes were good enough to reveal “canals” which some observers speculated to be the elaborate infrastructure of an advanced civilisation.

In the space age, our near neighbour Mars has not surprisingly been the object of some of the most ambitious interplanetary missions. But while scientists love Mars, it does not always love them back – or perhaps it is a fickle lover, having earned a reputation as an unforgiving destination and graveyard of spacecraft. So if nothing else it must be said that the United Arab Emirates is bold; many countries have space agencies, but few aim so high as to found a body dedicated to bolstering their scientific and educational base and, at the same time, making a mission to Mars their first major objective.

That mission – called Hope and announced along with the agency’s founding in 2014 – is planned for the July 2020 launch window, when the Earth and Mars will be at the closest in their two-year cycle; arrival in early 2021 would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s founding.

If successful the UAE will become just the fifth actor to reach Mars, after the Soviet Union, USA, Europe and India. All have had failures, so Emirati engineers and scientists and foreign partners will of course be “Hoping” for a good result in this first attempt at interplanetary exploration by an Arab country. The plan is to put a spacecraft in an orbit as high as 20,000-30,000km to study the Martian climate and day-night cycle and measure the loss to space of molecules from the atmosphere. As such, Hope promises to complement existing and recent Mars missions from NASA and the European Space Agency, both of which also intend to exploit the July 2020 launch window, and India.

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The design of the spacecraft and its visual light, infrared and ultraviolet sensors is expected to be carried out under the guidance of partner universities in the USA, but the agency promises that “nearly 30%” of the contribution will come from UAE engineers. With a launch mass of about 1,500kg, Hope should be deliverable by any of the commonly available launchers. While no launch plans have been revealed, one candidate vehicle is surely the Indian space agency’s PSLV, which made India one-for-one in Mars attempts, by successfully ferrying its Mars Orbiter Mission to position in September 2014.

Indeed, the UAE already has a winning relationship with India and PSLV. The UAE passed a notable milestone earlier this year with the launch of its first cubesat mission, Nayif-1, built by Emirati engineering students at the American University of Sharjah to study the design, testing and operation of communications satellite technologies. Launch had been scheduled for late 2015 by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but the perils of being a secondary – or “piggyback” – payload were put into sharp relief with the total loss of a Falcon vehicle in June 2015 and temporary grounding of the type. However, the Nayif-1 team got lucky, and made history of sorts, by climbing aboard a February 2017 PSLV flight that orbited a single-launch record of 104 satellites – one Earth imaging unit as principal payload and 103 secondary cubesats.

Hope is just the start. The UAE space agency marked its third anniversary in July, with a three dirham Mars/Hope commemorative postage stamp and a long-term vision outlined by director-general Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi of a Mars 2117 project to see “Emirati settlement of Mars within 100 years”.

Meanwhile, last month’s 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, heard Emirati researchers present work on the aerodynamic challenges of flying gliders in the thin Martian atmosphere. UAE engineers also discussed their case for establishing a ground station, modelled on NASA’s deep space tracking network, to take advantage of the UAE’s geographic location.

Emiratis will soon have a chance to see space for themselves. The new UAE national observatory at Dubai’s Mushrif national park is scheduled to hold its grand opening in early December, after the arrival of its main telescope, which features a 1m (39.3in) mirror – the largest in the region and designed to study the Sun and stars.

The UAE’s Al Yah Satellite Communications company (Yahsat) should soon be celebrating the launch of its latest satellite. Founded in 2007 and owned by Emirati investment company Mubadala, Yahsat currently has two satellites and ground infrastructure providing communication services to some 600 million people in 140 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and central and south-west Asia. A third satellite will cover South America and west Africa; launch expectations for 2016 have been put back, but the Orbital Sciences-built spacecraft is now slated to fly before the end of this year.

Satellite operations are not new to the UAE. The country already operates some seven satellites, for commercial and military use. The Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) has been designing satellites for launch since 1997 – hence the Hope mission to Mars is ambitious but the UAE space agency is not, strictly speaking, starting from scratch.

Reaching out to Virgin territory

In one very high-profile way which promises dramatic implications for people on the ground, the UAE will imminently reach space – through its support of Virgin Group’s Galactic Ventures space businesses.

Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments has been a key backer of Virgin’s space effort since 2010, and now holds a short half of the group. While work continues towards the goal of carrying passengers to suborbital space, one Galactic operation is poised to cross the final frontier. Virgin Orbit, working from a design and manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California and a test site at Mojave, near Edwards air force base, is responsible for the group’s bid to air-launch small satellites – and is gearing up for the maiden flight of its LauncherOne rocket during the first half of 2018.

Flight Daily News recently returned to Virgin Orbit in Long Beach. Nearly empty during a 2015 visit just after Virgin moved in, the 14,000m2 (150,000ft²) facility is today humming as several hundred engineers and technicians – including veterans of Boeing’s recently closed C-17 plant nearby – work to ready the 21m-long two-stage rockets and their Newton engines. And the excitement is palpable: a former Virgin Atlantic 747 – appropriately called “Cosmic Girl”, which by chance was its name in airline service – has been converted to air launch duty and will soon enter flight testing, to check its modifications for aerodynamics and its handling with a rocket weighing some 25,000kg under the left wing, a capability that exploits the 747’s original equipment spare engine carry mounting.

Special projects vice president Will Pomerantz says the goal is to reach orbit during the first half of 2018; a test flight will carry a Virgin payload, and if all goes well then a second flight will carry a customer spacecraft. Long Beach, he says, is prepared to support up to six flights in 2018, then 12 in 2019 and reach full capacity of 24 in 2020.

Twenty-four flights a year says a lot about expectations for commercial spaceflight. Worldwide in 2016 there were just 86 flights to space by all operators, a level of activity far exceeded by burgeoning demand for access to orbit. Like computers or smartphones, satellites have become smaller, cheaper and more capable as electronics has developed, but the cost and inflexibility of launch remains an impediment.

LauncherOne can put about 300kg into a 500km polar orbit, ideal for most scientific or commercial Earth observation missions, or more mass into one of the lower latitude orbits demanded by telecoms operators such as OneWeb, which has contracted more than three dozen flights to orbit its in-development sub-150kg satellites.

LauncherOne is perhaps the most prominent of a nascent generation of small rockets hoping to break open this market. Its $ 10m per flight price does not beat big, established rockets on cost per payload-kilogram, but critically, as Pomerantz notes, it is an accessible price that gives small satellite operators control over deployment. To cite just one example, that control issue is well-known the Emirati engineering students at the American University in Sharjah – their Nayif-1 cubesat, built to study the design, testing and operation of satellite technologies, spent two years in storage after losing its “piggyback” slot on a Falcon 9 rocket when a 2015 accident forced SpaceX to ground the type. No student cubesat team would pay $ 10m to reach orbit, but such a delay to the sort of commercial project they are preparing for would be financially devastating.

When Virgin moved in at Long Beach in 2015, the empty building looked cavernously empty. With hard work, enthusiasm, substantial investment and confidence in the future of the space industry, today it fits the operation comfortably. As Pomerantz notes, Virgin Group head Richard Branson “took a leap of faith” to go into a building that was big enough to support a flight every two weeks.

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