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 had been a U.A.E. member since before she was elected Prime Minister. 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. But she said that the news was shocking to her. “I was shocked. I think that is the right word,” she recalls.
She may have felt a bit shocked at all the responsibility and honor that she had to take on, but it was not surprising. 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. There was no way that we would soon reach space. Amiri studied Computer Programming in College, and not anything space-related. The first seeds of an Emirati space program were already beginning to grow by her graduation in 2009. At 22 years old, she applied for UAESA. She was hired as a software engineer and worked on advanced air systems programs.
U.A.E. The U.A.E. was the first to launch an Earth observation satellite in 2009. Dubai SAT 2 was launched 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. The UAESA had seven years to prepare the mission, which usually takes a decade of planning. 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.) The SUV-sized spacecraft took seven months to arrive at 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.
UAESA has shared data from the Hope spacecraft with the entire world for nearly a year. 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. While other spacecraft may have observed the distinct aurorae, they have not been as precise or sharp 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.
Sarah Al Amiri is the U.A.E. Photo taken in Dubai by the U.A.E. Minister for Advanced Technology and Chairwoman, UAE Space Agency.
Natalie Naccache for TIME
Hope was ambitious not only in its reach but also for the gender representation. Amiri’s science team included 80% women, an unusual number in the field of space exploration. Her determination to not let gender hold her back from her chosen career has never wavered. “I grew up to be—and continue to be—deaf to the challenges pertaining to gender,” she says.
Amiri knows the obstacles women face when it comes to science advancement. 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 is confident that Amiri will plug the leak and set a precedent for women in her field. “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. Only the fourth nation to achieve such an amazing feat of aerobatics is the United States. The country may be taking its first, early steps into space, but led by Amiri, it’s taking them confidently.
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