Sarah Al Amiri was in COVID-19 quarantine after arriving in Japan in July 2020 when she learned news beyond anything she had ever dreamed of: while scrolling through Twitter to pass the time, she learned that the government of the United Arab Emirates was reshuffling some of its higher ranking offices and officers and that Amiri, now 35, was being appointed chairwoman of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA)—the equivalent of NASA Administrator.
Amiri was already a member of the U.A.E. Prime Minister’s office, serving as Minister of State for Science—she was in Japan for the launch of her country’s first Mars mission, aboard a Japanese Mitsubishi rocket. Yet she says the news still stunned her. “I was shocked. I think that is the right word,” she recalls.
Shocked at the honor and the responsibility that came with it, perhaps, but she could not have been entirely surprised. Amiri has been fascinated with space since she was 12 years old, when she first saw a picture of the Andromeda galaxy and learned that it is 2.5 million light years from Earth—an almost unfathomable distance. However, given that space exploration was still in the hands of just a few of the world’s largest nations, it seemed unlikely to a young Amiri that a country like the U.A.E. would reach space any time soon. So rather than anything directly space-related, Amiri studied computer programming in college. But by the time she graduated in 2009, the first green shoots of an Emirati space program had begun to sprout. She applied to join UAESA and was hired at 22 as a 22-year-old software engineer, working on an advanced aerial systems program.
The U.A.E. launched its first Earth observation satellite, Dubai SAT, in 2009, followed by Dubai SAT 2 in 2013. Then, in 2014, it set its space ambitions far higher, announcing a goal to send a probe to Martian orbit by 2021—the country’s 50th anniversary. That gave UAESA only seven years to plan the kind of mission that usually requires a decade or more of preparation. Amiri was named deputy project manager and science lead on the mission, which had the ambitious goal of mapping Mars’s entire atmosphere over a whole Martian year (687 Earth days).
The spacecraft Amiri’s team designed and built for the mission was dubbed Hope—a 1,380 kg (3,000 lb.) SUV-sized vehicle that took seven months to reach the Red Planet. Waiting for news of the spacecraft’s arrival on February 9, 2021, was, says Amiri, “the toughest point.” But this time, instead of being in quarantine, she was standing outside the Burj Khalifa—the tallest building in the world—and celebrating with the crowds who had gathered to mark the moment.
The Hope spacecraft has now been studying the Martian atmosphere for close to a year, sending down regular tranches of data which UAESA shares freely with the world. Among the craft’s most noteworthy discoveries: the detection of what’s known as a “discrete aurora” on the nighttime side of the planet—a phenomenon caused by solar energy interacting with crustal formations that still bear traces of the planet’s long-gone magnetic field. Other spacecraft have seen the discrete aurorae, but none have seen it as sharply or mapped it as precisely as Hope. The spacecraft also detected dramatic variations in atomic oxygen and carbon monoxide in Mars’s dayside atmosphere; previous studies led scientists to expect more uniform distributions of the two gasses.
The mission’s successes have not only made contributions to science, but helped put the Emirates’ space program in the cosmic big leagues. “The U.A.E. has been very ambitious in developing an outstanding space program,” says Pascale Ehrenfreund, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. The country’s achievements—which, aside from the Hope mission and the Earth observation satellites, have included sending an astronaut to the International Space Station—“are symbolic of a new era in the region,” Ehrenfreund says.
The Hope mission was not just ambitious in terms of its scope, but also in terms of gender representation. Amiri’s science team included 80% women, an unusual number in the field of space exploration. She has always been determined that gender would not in any way hold her back in her chosen field. “I grew up to be—and continue to be—deaf to the challenges pertaining to gender,” she says.
However, Amiri is aware of the challenges for women advancing in the field of science. In her work as Minister of State for Advanced Technology, she has helped put together a team that has focused exclusively on women in sciences—addressing what she describes as “a leaky pipeline” that too often sees women drop out of STEM programs before beginning their careers. “It’s something that exists and something that you need to acknowledge exists, and by acknowledging it, you’re able to treat it,” Amiri says.
Ehrenfreund believes that Amiri can help plug that leak, setting a standard for other women to follow. “Her successful career from computer science and space research responsibilities to becoming Minister of State for Advanced Technology in the government of the United Arab Emirates is certainly exemplary,” she says.
As for the U.A.E.’s ambitions in space, Amiri is not standing still. The country’s next major mission, which will be launched in 2028, will involve a flyby of Venus as well as a tour of seven different asteroids, culminating with a landing on the last of them, making the U.A.E. just the fourth country in the world to pull off such an acrobatic maneuver. The country may be taking its first, early steps into space, but led by Amiri, it’s taking them confidently.
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