Sarah Amiri. Credit: World Economic Forum
As the United Arab Emirates prepares for life after oil, could a mission to Mars help transform its economy? Sarah Amiri is the deputy project manager and science lead at the Emirates Mars Mission. She is also the Chairwoman of the Emirates Scientists’ Council and is a World Economic Forum Young Scientist who will be speaking at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China, from June 26 to 28. She recently discussed climate change on Mars, her country's shift to a knowledge-based economy, and why the space program is inspiring young people across the Middle East.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows]
What do you do?
I am the science lead for the United Arab Emirates' first mission to Mars. Our unmanned spacecraft, the "Hope," will be launched in the summer of 2020 and is scheduled to reach Mars in 2021, for the 50th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I also lead the Emirates Scientists' Council, which advises the government on science and technology policies so we can nurture the next generation of scientists.
What do you hope to achieve with your Mars mission?
We have two main objectives. One is to gather data on changes in atmosphere through an entire Martian year, which equals two earth years. We want to find out more about Mars, its climate and weather, and how it changes. This will in turn provide scientists with important data for their own research into the changes that have occurred on Mars. Our partners in this are the University of Colorado, the University of California, Berkeley, and Arizona State University.
The other objective is broader and is linked to our country's transition from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one. We've staffed our space program with young graduates--the average age of the team is 27. I'm 29. That's normal; in fact, I'm considered old within the team. Our work requires a monumental shift in mindset, and young people are more able to adapt to change. People aged between 15 and 29 make up over 30 percent of the Middle East's population, and they should be given big projects.
We've generally had a very positive response from young people in the Middle East. They feel that finally someone is recognizing their potential and tapping into it. So our underlying objective is to send a message to our youth, to show there is a path that is based on science and technology and not on radicalism.
You say your project requires a "monumental shift in mindset." What is so unconventional about it?
Developing technology is not something we usually do in the Emirates. We're very good end-users of technology, but now we're transitioning to designing and developing technology. It's creating new opportunities for engineers and scientists in the UAE, and it's changing the way engineers work here. This space program started off as a government project to test a new way of working and to develop the science and technology sector. It's been successful, and we're now going to implement our approach in other sectors as part of our transition to a post-oil economy.
Historically, the Arab world was the cradle of space science. Is this something you refer to as you promote the space program in the region?
It's something we're very aware of, and something we want to get back to. Our region developed the fundamentals for every field of science. We were among the first to use math and physics to explain what's happening with the heavens, to move away from mythology. So we know what our potential is, because we've done it before. Our Mars mission is meant to stimulate that potential.
What is new about the Mars mission?
We're collecting data throughout the entire Martian year. For the first time we'll be able to understand the seasonal changes that are occurring on Mars, the changes in the weather.
We're also trying to understand the Martian atmosphere. Mars is losing oxygen and hydrogen to space—those are the building blocks of water. At some point, Mars had an atmosphere that could sustain flowing water, which could indicate that it could host life. Then its climate changed to the point where it could no longer sustain pure, flowing water on its surface. Understanding that history and the impact of climate change on Mars will also allow us to better understand how our own planet Earth has evolved, and how it may evolve in the future.
Could humans live on Mars one day?
It's not something I rule out. We're working toward that.
What inspired you to become a space scientist?
I've always been fascinated by space exploration, but back then we didn't have a space program. So it's something I always dreamed about, but I didn't think it could come true.
The universe challenges your brain, it gets you to the point where you really don't understand how it works, how it evolved, how planets were created, how individuals and different species ended up existing on them. The only way to answer these questions is through science.
Has it been a challenge to work as a female scientist in the Middle East?
Personally, it's not been a challenge at all. Most science graduates in the UAE are women, and 50 percent of our employees at the space program are women. So we don't usually see the same trend of inequality that you see globally. Ironically, when we meet with international entities, that's when I'm often the only woman in the room.
Many countries around the world are trying to attract more women to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. How has the UAE achieved this?
When our country was founded, there were equal opportunities in education from the start. So our country did not inherit a gender gap. Girls were incentivized to go to school. When our first universities opened, they were open to men and women. We also have legislation to promote women in leadership. Another factor could be that we have a limited number of people, so people here, including myself, have been hired based on their accomplishments.
At our space program, we work a lot on outreach, from programs for children in nurseries all the way through to universities. We're creating change, we're instigating different ways of thinking, we're inspiring a lot of people to enter science and technology.
What will be your next big challenge after the Mars mission?
With any question about Mars, you don't just get an answer, you get several other questions. We've been looking at the stars for centuries now and we still don't fully understand everything that's going on there. So we'll be working on this for a while.