How Hope Mars mission put the Arab world back in the space exploration game

Dr Mohamed Abid, a chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Originally from Tunisia, Abid today works as NASA’s payload chief engineer, overseeing the return of samples from the Red Planet. (AFP)
Dr Mohamed Abid, a chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Originally from Tunisia, Abid today works as NASA’s payload chief engineer, overseeing the return of samples from the Red Planet. (AFP)
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Updated 23 November 2021

How Hope Mars mission put the Arab world back in the space exploration game

Dr Mohamed Abid, a chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Originally from Tunisia, Abid today works as NASA’s payload chief engineer, overseeing the return of samples from the Red Planet. (AFP)
  • NASA engineer Mohamed Abid says the UAE’s successful mission has inspired young Arabs 
  • Abid says Arab investment in space tech shows the Middle East is on the right track

DUBAI: One small step for the UAE came as a giant leap for the Arab world last February when the UAE became the first Middle East nation to mount a successful unmanned mission to Mars. According to one NASA scientist, the region has shown that it has immense potential in space exploration.

The UAE probe, named Hope, which was launched in July 2020 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center to study the Mars atmosphere, reached its destination earlier this year. The mission has inspired a whole generation of young Arabs to consider a career in space engineering.

“There is a lot of potential among the youth in the MENA region,” Dr Mohamed Abid, a chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told Arab News, referring to the Middle East and North Africa. “Through this mission, a lot of Arab youth now feel they can get involved because they have an example of a mission or a program in front of them.

“That whole notion that you cannot do it because you are from the Middle East has been shown to be an illusion. It’s now a reality and it’s a big deal for the youth and a common theme I get.”

Abid, who mentors young people at schools and universities about how to break into careers in space technology, said that interest has skyrocketed since the Hope mission was accomplished.

“A lot of them are highly motivated and interested in how to engage in space,” Abid said. “They’re very enthusiastic; they have huge dreams. It’s not just dreams, but realizable goals. It’s definitely more accessible than back in my time.”

Originally from Tunisia, Abid today works as NASA’s payload chief engineer, overseeing the return of samples from the Red Planet. He has held multiple top-ranking positions during his 17-year career, including a stint as the Mars 2020 deputy chief mechanical engineer.

Although fascinated by space from a young age, Abid never dreamed that he would end up working for NASA. “I thought this was not a place for everybody. It was a place for ‘special people’ — not people from Tunisia,” he said.

Abid said that he vividly remembers the Challenger disaster of 1986, when the Space Shuttle suffered a catastrophic failure and broke apart shortly after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew members.




This handout picture made available by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) on July 9, 2020, shows technicians working at the centre, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai. (AFP/File Photo)

It was partly the subsequent strenuous effort to prevent such a tragedy from happening again that piqued Abid’s interest in space engineering.

“I witnessed NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger incident in the late 1980s on the news,” he said. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to work in space and that would be my target and dream.”

After obtaining a Ph.D. from the aerospace and mechanical engineering department at the University of Southern California, Abid became a lecturer at USC and later published a textbook titled “Spacecraft Sensors.”

Between semesters he signed up for internships in research laboratories, exploring everything from particle physics to quantum theory. “That was an extremely great opportunity for me to diversify my experience and deepen my understanding of various fields,” he told Arab News.

So, what advice does Abid have for the young people he mentors who dream of someday working for the likes of NASA?




A picture taken on July 19, 2020 shows Dubai's Burj Khalifa lit up in support of the United Arab Emirates "Hope" Mars probe, ahead of it's expected launch from Japan. (AFP/File Photo)

“It’s about finding something you’re passionate about, understanding the field and using it as a learning opportunity. It’s about getting the experience under your belt to share and have extracurricular activities that show the breadth of that person. That was definitely a huge contributor to how I ended up at NASA today,” he said.

“My ultimate goal was always to join one of the NASA centers, but it’s never a straight line. You have to find your way, keep it as your end goal, don’t lose focus, but maximize your chances.”

Abid was invited to speak about Mars missions at the International Symposium on Networks, Computers and Communications 2021, organized by the Canadian University Dubai, in early November. He told delegates that he has little doubt that Arab youth will be taking significant strides forward in the field of space exploration.

“Having a country other than the US, China, India or Russia make it to Mars is great news. It shows that the Red Planet is accessible to a lot of countries and that the technology is there around the world for many countries to join,” he said.

FASTFACTS

* Scholars of the Arab world have gazed at the stars with curiosity and genius for centuries.

* The first observatory was built in the 8th century by Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun ibn Al-Rashid in Baghdad.

* KSA’s Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Arab in space when he flew aboard the US space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

* Today, 9 Middle East countries have space programs ranging from putting satellites into Earth’s orbit to planning for a lunar landing.

* UAE space program has about $5.4bn in public-private support.

* The UAE Mars mission cost about $200m.

Source: Arab Center Washington, D.C.

“It opened up the door to expand the contribution and participation of other nations to help the overall scheme and (achieve the) ultimate goal to land someone on Mars, and it opened up that door for the Arab world that we can go to Mars and we know how to do it.”

The Hope probe’s mission was a “huge technological achievement” for the Arab world, he said, with the UAE now among a small club of nations who have made it to Mars. For Abid, it sends a strong message to the world that the Middle East is on the right track, contributing to human progress.




Dr Mohamed Abid, a chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. (Supplied)

“It’s a stepping stone that there is a set of knowledge that has been acquired,” he said. “The question now is what you do with that knowledge, which is really important because it’s about building on that momentum to get to the next step.”

The UAE is not alone in establishing an Arab space program. According to Dr Mohammad bin Saud Al-Tamimi, CEO of the Saudi Space Commission, the sector is a focus of the Vision 2030 agenda, which aims to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil.

Saudi Arabia launched 16 satellites into space between 2000 and 2019. In March this year, the Kingdom launched two satellites, including the first one to be developed by a local university, according to the Saudi Press Agency.




According to one NASA scientist, the Middle East region has shown that it has immense potential in space exploration. (AFP/File Photos)

Shaheen Sat 17, from King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and CubeSat, from King Saud University (KSU), were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on board Russia’s Soyuz-2 carrier rocket.

“This achievement was the fruit of the great support that the Kingdom’s research, development, and innovation sector receives from King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” said KACST chief Dr. Anas bin Faris Al-Faris.

In October, the Saudi Space Commission joined the International Astronautical Federation.

Globally, the space industry’s potential cannot be overestimated. A recent study by Morgan Stanley revealed that the space economy could be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.

Last year, the UAE announced plans to send a compact rover, “Rashid,” to study the surface of the moon in 2024. If successful, the mission would make the UAE only the fourth country to operate a craft on the moon, and the first among Arab nations.




An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe known as “Al-Amal” in Arabic, developed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to explore Mars, blasts off from Tanegashima Space Centre in southwestern Japan. (AFP/File Photo)

“Those are huge technological goals that will play out very well and become a source of motivation for the youth in general,” Abid said.

“If you’re in school and you see that you can work on space, launch rockets, explore different planets and expand on that exploration, then it is a monumental achievement and this needs to continue.

“We have proof that it can be done, and there is more to be done, and it’s up to the imagination of the youth to see what the next mission is that could help us on earth.

“At the end of the day, humans are explorers, and this is an avenue to help us in that endeavor.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons

UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons
Updated 29 November 2021

UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons

UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons

Britain and Israel will “work night and day” in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the foreign ministers of the two countries wrote in a joint article.
“The clock is ticking, which heightens the need for close cooperation with our partners and friends to thwart Tehran’s ambitions,” the UK’s Liz Truss and her Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid wrote in the Telegraph newspaper on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said earlier in the day that his country was “very worried” that world powers will remove sanctions on Iran in exchange for insufficient caps on its nuclear program, as negotiators convene in Vienna on Monday in a last-ditch effort to salvage a nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, Israel and Britain will sign a 10-year agreement on Monday to work closely on areas such as cybersecurity, technology, trade and defense, according to the Telegraph.
The foreign ministers added in the article that Israel will officially become Britain’s “tier one” cyber partner, in a bid to improve its cyber defenses as countries around the world face increased threats.


Iranian riot police patrol city’s dry river after water protests

In this file photo taken on November 19, 2021, Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on November 19, 2021, Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan. (AFP)
Updated 29 November 2021

Iranian riot police patrol city’s dry river after water protests

In this file photo taken on November 19, 2021, Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan. (AFP)
  • Demonstrators blame authorities for diverting water to neighboring Yazd province

TEHRAN: Iranian riot police on Sunday patrolled a dried-out riverbed in the central city of Isfahan where protests against a water shortage led to violent clashes two days earlier.

Drought and water diversions have been blamed for drying up the Zayandeh-Rood waterway that runs from the Zagros mountains and through the city known for its iconic river bridges.
Water protests since Nov. 9 have drawn at times thousands of demonstrators to the city, where a large rally on Friday escalated into clashes in which 67 people were arrested.
Calm has returned and it held on Sunday, a local photographer said by phone from Isfahan, the country’s third-largest city 340 km south of Tehran.
“In the morning, the city was calm and traffic was normal,” the photographer said.
“I saw riot police patrolling the riverbed between the historic bridges, but their numbers were lower than on Saturday.”
The protesters blame the authorities for diverting water to neighboring Yazd province, which is also desperately short of water.
Authorities Saturday announced 67 arrests of the “main perpetrators and troublemakers” in the rally that had drawn “2,000 to 3,000 rioters.”
The arrests were made by the police, intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guards.

BACKGROUND

Water protests since Nov. 9 have drawn at times thousands of demonstrators to the city, where a large rally on Friday escalated into clashes in which 67 people were arrested.

Police had on Friday fired tear gas at the protesters, who threw stones, smashed the windows of an ambulance and set a police motorbike ablaze, according to the Fars news agency.
Nourodin Soltanian, a spokesman for Isfahan University Hospital, said a number of protesters were wounded, including “two in serious condition.”
Isfahan police chief Mohammed-Reza Mirheidari called the protesters “opportunists and counter-revolutionaries,” and the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan accused “mercenary thugs” of being behind the “riots.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington was “deeply concerned about the violent crackdown against peaceful protesters.”
He added on Twitter that “the people of Iran have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable.”
The Kayhan daily meanwhile also linked Friday’s protests to the scheduled resumption of nuclear talks on Monday in Vienna between Iran and a group of major powers.
Friday’s events “testify to the infiltration of a US fifth column, in the run-up to the Vienna talks, to provoke a riot and push for (new) US sanctions” against Iran, it said.
The Zayandeh-Rood river that runs through Isfahan has been dry since 2000, except for a few brief periods.
Iran has endured repeated droughts over the past decade, but also regular floods, a phenomenon that can intensify when torrential rains fall on sun-baked earth.
Scientists say climate change amplifies droughts and that their intensity and frequency in turn threaten food security.


Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground
Updated 28 November 2021

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground
  • Diplomats: Tehran simply playing for time to accumulate more material and know-how

PARIS: World powers and Iran return to Vienna on Monday in a last ditch effort to salvage the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but few expect a breakthrough as Tehran’s atomic activities rumble on in an apparent bid to gain leverage against the West.
The US will also send a delegation, headed by Washington’s Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, to participate in the talks indirectly.
Israel worries Iran will secure sanctions relief in renewed nuclear negotiations with world powers, but will not sufficiently roll back projects with bomb making potential, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
“Israel is very worried about the readiness to remove the sanctions and to allow a flow of billions (of dollars) to Iran in exchange for unsatisfactory restrictions in the nuclear realm,” Bennett told his Cabinet in televised remarks.
“This is the message that we are relaying in every manner, whether to the Americans or to the other countries negotiating with Iran.”
Few expect a breakthrough in the talks as Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have escalated in an apparent bid to gain leverage.
Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal, which former US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other world powers involved.
Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June.
The latest round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Tehran’s negotiating team has set out demands that US and European diplomats consider unrealistic.
Two European diplomats said it seemed Iran was simply playing for time to accumulate more material and know-how.
Western diplomats say they will head to Monday’s talks on the premise that they resume where they left off in June, and have warned that if Iran continues with its maximalist positions and fails to restore its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, then they will review their options.
Iran’s top negotiator and foreign minister both repeated on Friday that the full lifting of sanctions would be the only thing on the table in Vienna.
“If this is the position that Iran continues to hold on Monday, then I don’t see a negotiated solution,” said one European diplomat.
Iran has pressed ahead with its uranium enrichment program and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to re-install monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.
“They are doing enough technically so they can change their basic relationship with the West to be able to have a more equal dialogue in the future,” said a Western diplomat involved in the talks.
Several diplomats said Iran was now between four to six weeks away from the “breakout time” it needs to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, although they cautioned it was still about two years from being able to weaponize it.
Should the talks collapse, the likelihood is the US and its allies will initially confront Iran at the IAEA next month by calling for an emergency meeting.


Egypt authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15 year-olds

Egypt authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15 year-olds
Updated 28 November 2021

Egypt authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15 year-olds

Egypt authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15 year-olds
  • Prime minister directs government to take all precautionary measures against new COVID-19 variant Omicron

CAIRO: Egypt authorized on Sunday Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12-15, the cabinet said in a statement.
The step effectively lowers the minimum age of eligibility to receive the two-shot vaccine in Egypt, which was 15 years old previously.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly directed the government to take all precautionary measures against the new COVID-19 variant Omicron, noting the decision to halt all direct flights with South Africa.
His comments came during a meeting of a medical group to combat coronavirus, the state news agency (MENA) reported. 
Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, higher education and acting health minister, reviewed a report on the current local and international epidemical situation and the developments of the new variant, adding that the report confirmed there are no Omicron cases detected in Egypt till now.
He said that about 45.2 million vaccine doses had been administered, with 15.6 million people having received both doses.
On Friday, Egypt suspended direct flights to and from South Africa due to concerns about a new variant of the COVID-19 virus.
(With Reuters)


At least 200 Houthis killed in fighting, airstrikes in Marib, Jouf

At least 200 Houthis killed in fighting, airstrikes in Marib, Jouf
Updated 28 November 2021

At least 200 Houthis killed in fighting, airstrikes in Marib, Jouf

At least 200 Houthis killed in fighting, airstrikes in Marib, Jouf
  • The Arab coalition on Sunday announced that it had killed 110 Houthis in 15 airstrikes that destroyed nine Houthi military targets in Marib and Jouf during the past 24 hours

AL-MUKALLA: At least 200 Houthis were killed in heavy fighting with government forces and in airstrikes by Arab coalition warplanes during the past 24 hours in the Yemeni provinces of Marib and Jouf, as the militia pushed into Marib to seize control of strategic terrain, coalition and local military figures said on Sunday. 

One official told Arab News that at least 100 Houthis were killed when the militia launched a string of attacks on government forces in Thana, west of Marib city, on Saturday, in a bid to break the government’s lines and reach Al-Balaq Al-Qibili Mountain to high ground over parts of the city.

“All waves of the Houthis failed to advance or capture an inch in Thana. Many Houthis were killed when our forces and the (Arab) coalition’s warplanes wiped out those waves,” the official said, adding that most of the Houthi fatalities were caused by “precise” airstrikes. 

The Houthis have recently focused attacks on areas west of Marib after failing to make territorial gains in Juba, Um Raesh and Al-Amud, south of Marib.

In September, the Houthis pushed into districts such as Abedia, Rahabah and Hareb after making rapid gains in neighboring Al-Bayda province.

The Houthis once again were drawn into a military stalemate in Juba after facing stiff resistance from army troops and local tribes. Hundreds were killed in heavy fighting during the past week, and the militia was forced into decreasing attacks due to high losses, the official said. 

The Arab coalition on Sunday announced that it had killed 110 Houthis in 15 airstrikes that destroyed nine Houthi military targets in Marib and Jouf during the past 24 hours.

The coalition has intensified raids against the Houthis across Yemen, hitting ballistic missile depots, drone workshops and ammunition stores in Sanaa and dozens of military vehicles and fighters heading to various battlefields.

Based on the coalition’s daily updates on its airstrikes, hundreds of Houthis have been killed and dozens of vehicles destroyed in Marib and other flashpoints in Yemen this month.

The heavy aerial bombardments of Houthi targets have shored up government troops on the ground, allowing them to repulse Houthi attacks and make territorial gains.