ABU DHABI // The UAE's big plans for space exploration are an ambition reflected in previous generations of Arab scientists, a top scientist says.
Dr Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, vice president of the California Institute of Technology and professor of electrical engineering and planetary science, said that just as Arabs had led the way in the past, Arab youth now can contribute to the future of space.
The UAE has a major role, he said, as it can provide young people with the resources and opportunities needed to enter that field. And youth are more naturally excited by the possibilities of space exploration, he said.
"Looking forward over the next decade, as the young Emiratis expand their knowledge and capabilities in science and technology, we hope that the UAE will develop and launch its own satellites, and join the other nations in space exploration, and renew the major role that the Arab world played many centuries ago in expanding our knowledge of the universe around us," he said.
For instance, he said, a theory presented by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, a Muslim scholar from the 12th century, suggested that other planets revolved around stars far from our own.
And indeed, scientists have recently estimated that as many as 50 per cent of extrasolar stars are orbited by planets - an observation made by checking the brightness of the stars. With modern instruments, tiny variations in the light they emit can show that something is passing in front of them, he said.
Dr Elachi said many stars have Arabic names, as named by the scholars who discovered them. The star Altair, for instance, is an anglicisation of the name Al-Nasr At-Ta'ir.
Mohammed Al Idrisi, a widely travelled cartographer who charted the world in the 10th century, produced some of the most accurate maps of his time, using simple methods of observation, Dr Elachi said.Dr Elachi is himself an example of the potential for Arabs to play a role in the space race. He was educated in his native Lebanon and graduated from secondary school with the highest maths grades in the country.
He went on to attend universities in France and the United States, has worked on a raft of projects for Nasa, and has even had an asteroid named after him.
Besides the Arab role in space, Dr Elachi's talk in Abu Dhabi also touched on the benefits of exploring outer space, as well as the next great frontier of that exploration.
Much modern technology has spun out of space exploration and astronomy, Dr Elachi noted. The technology behind mobile phones, for instance, was first used in communicating with orbiting satellites.
He said Mars was a particularly interesting target for exploration because it has so many similarities to Earth. Extinct volcanoes three times the height of Mt Everest, canyons larger than the Grand Canyon in the US and a polar ice caps are all features that we can easily identify with, he said.
Dr Elachi played a video to demonstrate how a rover landed on Mars a few years ago. After screaming through the Martian atmosphere, it deployed a parachute and hit the surface surrounded by airbags. Eventually it bounced to a halt, deflated the airbags and began exploring the surface.
A larger rover called Curiosity, the size of a car, is scheduled to launch in November. When it lands in August 2012, it will study the Red Planet with even more sophisticated equipment, including an onboard chemical laboratory.
The goal, he said, might be the big prize: evidence of exterrestrial life.
"We can see if there is organic material, if yes, it means [Mars] had oceans in the past," he said.
Dr Elachi made his comments on Sunday night at the Ramadan majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.