x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Pressure is on for young Emirati space engineers aiming for Mars

The joint project between the centre and the UAE Space Agency is expected to lift off in 2020 and these engineers are working tirelessly to achieve that goal

Mohsen Al Awadhi, mission system engineer, gestures during the interview at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National
Mohsen Al Awadhi, mission system engineer, gestures during the interview at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National

Building an unmanned probe to send to Mars from scratch in only five years is no easy task – particularly when many countries take around 10 years of preparation.

But that did not discourage the many Emiratis who are now strenuously working towards achieving just that.

“It’s something we enjoy doing but we have to learn,” said Mohsen Al Awadhi, a 29-year-old mission system engineer on the Emirates Mars Mission at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.

“Usually people do these missions in 10 years and we have five so everything is compressed for us. We have to not only do the job but learn and do the job, which is fun but it’s also a challenge.”

Left to right, engineers  Mohsen Al Awadhi, Mubarak Mohammed Al Ahbabi, and Hessa Ali Hussain at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National
Left to right, engineers Mohsen Al Awadhi, Mubarak Mohammed Al Ahbabi, and Hessa Al Hammadi at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National

The joint project between the centre and the UAE Space Agency is expected to lift off in 2020 to benefit from a window which aligns Earth and Mars when their orbits are closest - just 60 million kilometers. It will take a year to reach the Red Planet, arriving in time for the 50th anniversary of the UAE in 2021.

Once in orbit, the probe, named Hope or Al Amal in Arabic, will spend two years examining the atmosphere of Mars, looking for evidence of ice and water vapour as well as hydrogen and oxygen.

Engineers, left, Mohsen Al Awadhi and, right, Mubarak Mohammed Al Ahbabi at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National
Engineers, left, Mohsen Al Awadhi and, right, Mubarak Mohammed Al Ahbabi at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National

“This is the first time anyone is doing this from this region so the challenge itself is the responsibility we think about later on that we need to make sure that this is safe and reaches Mars safely,” Mr Al Awadhi said.

“To me, space is the biggest thing and the name Hope will, hopefully, change mentalities in a messy region. That’s one of the biggest impact I already see happening here – we’re trying to stay positive.”

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And that might not always be easy when so much responsibility lies on such space engineers.

“My job is to make sure the whole spacecraft is working as one piece and ensure the ground segment is able to communicate with the spacecraft once it’s on the way to Mars,” he said.

“We also manage risks that whatever we have on the mission – things like manpower if we don’t have enough experience, national service comes up so what will happen with the mission, or technical risks like needing a part that no one has made before – but so far we’ve been able to manage them.”

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is looking for four degree-qualified citizens to be the first recruits to its new astronaut corps. Satish Kumar / The National
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National

He also needs to ensure the ground segment, or station, the launch segment, also known as the vehicle, and the space segment, namely the spacecraft, come together seamlessly.

“In second grade we had a class about space in science and it was one of the only classes I was really good at because I was very interested in it,” he said.

“One of my uncles was an aircraft pilot so I always looked at things from a scientific point of view. I wanted to be in aviation because that’s the only option we had back then - I wanted to be a pilot but my mother wanted me to stay on the ground so aircraft engineer was the next best thing.”

Hessa Al Hammadi, a digital electronic engineer, has to wear a number of different hats as she works in different projects including the Mars mission.

“I am the command data handling lead on the spacecraft which is mainly about the onboard computer and my job is to make sure the whole probe is surviving and working perfectly throughout the whole mission,” said the 24-year-old from Dubai.

“Another project I’m working on is on building CubeSats and involving space in the education of undergraduate students. I started as a student, we were the first batch, which is the best feeling so students get more excited about it because they see a result.”

Hessa Ali Hussain, engineer data & control unit, space avionics section, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National
Hessa Al Hammadi, engineer data & control unit, space avionics section, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National

After visiting Korea while still in school, she felt space was the pathway for her. “We got so interested in being a part of it,” she said. “It’s not common to be a woman in the space sector, but family and friends were proud of it. It’s not easy and it’s a big responsibility if you’re an engineer in space, it’s on you if something goes wrong. But it’s an amazing field and it’s really worth it.”

On a regular day, Ms Al Hammadi works a lot on testing in laboratories after she designs, verifies and produces designs.

“So far it’s going well but the only issue is time where we have to finish everything on time and we don’t want to miss the launch window of 2020,” she said.

“That’s the hard part to be honest, it’s not about the technical side of things because if you’re really well trained then you know how things go. But if you take one space engineer from the centre to any other industry, he will work perfectly, so you’re building technology and science, not just space, and you’re really developing your country indirectly.”

For Mubarak Al Ahbabi, senior system and software engineer at the agency, being a part of the mission was vital.

“If you go back two years ago when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid spoke of the programme, I started researching by myself to see what space was all about because for all of us in the UAE, it’s a new field,” he said. “So when I found out a lot of information about it, I wanted to be a part of this group.”

As the ground segment point of contact for the agency, he works regularly with the centre and Colorado University. “It’s very interesting and it’s important because it tracks and controls the probe after launching,” he said.

“I also work with UAE University to establish artificial intelligence facilities and a national space science and technology there.

"Every day we learn something new - you need to read and research a lot, especially at first. But it’s a very interesting job and we see space as an economic pillar so hopefully one day, the UAE will be able to lead other missions to space.”