Opinion

Emirates Mars Mission Builds on Centuries of Islamic Advances in Science

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

The Emirates Mars Mission in February 2021 became the first interplanetary space probe from an Arab nation to reach Mars. Scientists in the United Arab Emirates and their partners at the University of Colorado have been delighted in the mission’s success so far.

Since going into orbit, the mission’s Hope satellite has begun collecting data in an open-access repository that anyone can sign up to use.

The mission has also designed a research programme that Emirati undergraduates in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can apply to join. Accepted students will be mentored by Emirati and international scientists who will help them design and conduct Mars-related research projects.

The satellite will orbit the red planet for over two years as it investigates the intriguing Martian weather. The data may help us discover more about the loss of Mar’s past atmosphere. That in turn may shed light on whether there was once life on Mars, one of the most widely debated issues in space science.

Setting Its Sights on Mars

The driving force behind the Mars mission was to inspire young Emiratis to consider astrophysics and other scientific fields as a career.

The head of science operations for the Hope mission is Sarah al-Amiri, a 34-year-old Emirati who is passionate about planetary science. As the Emirates’ minister of state for advanced technology and chairwoman of the U.A.E. Space Agency, she is a role model for Emirati youth. (See a related article, “United Arab Emirate’s Mars Probe Increases Interest in Space Studies”.)

The driving force behind the Mars mission was to inspire young Emiratis to consider astrophysics and other scientific fields as a career.

But Al-Amiri, who has a degree in computer science, is herself a modern beneficiary of a legacy of what has been called ”the Golden Age of Islamic Science”, which flourished from the ninth to the 14th century.

Astrolabes Led the Way

Modern computers and navigation on earth—and across our solar system—can be traced to the astrolabes first invented by the ancient Greek in the third century B.C.E. However, the possibilities of the astrolabe were only realised and perfected in the 8th-century Arab world by Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari and the astronomer Al-Battani, who recognised their endless mathematical possibilities.

One of the most famous makers of astrolabes was Mariam Al-Ijliya, the mathematically brilliant daughter of an engineer, who mastered new designs and advanced calculations to build beautiful and innovative astrolabes in Aleppo in the 10th century. Her designs improved the navigation and timekeeping aspects of astrolabes.

The astrolabe has been described as the first computer. The astrolabe enabled accurate navigation for sailors and gave astronomers the ability to easily identify stars and planets. Made of discs of metal or wood with circumference markings and a pointer with functions not unlike a sundial. It was a compass of the stars as well as a clock and could also calculate complex mathematical problems.

Astrolabes could be small and simply made or elaborate, highly decorated creations worked from precious metals. And for more than a thousand years, the astrolabe could determine the success of any journey by sea or land. The astrolabe was valued in Islam as it could be used to determine prayer times and correctly determine the direction of Mecca. Other uses included calculating heights of buildings and mountains, making maps and accurately demarcating land for inheritance or agricultural purposes.

Adopted by European Explorers

In the 11th century, Arab sailors introduced the astrolabe to Europe, initially to the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish and Portuguese sailors seized on the astrolabe to undertake ambitious feats of navigation which included voyages of exploration around the African continent and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Every significant European astronomer also depended on the calculations made possible by the astrolabe as they created increasingly detailed maps of the cosmos.

Beautiful examples of early astrolabes, displayed in museums across the world, enabled sea journeys, international trade and astronomical advances that changed history.

In the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus based his astronomy on the calculations of medieval Islamic astronomers which led to his theory that the sun was the centre what was considered the universe used calculations from his astrolabes. Galileo was later put on trial by the Catholic Church for supporting the same theory and spent the end of his life in house arrest. He continued to use his telescope and astrolabe, which is now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Advances in Algebra

At the same time as the use of the astrolabe became widespread, the first systemised study of algebra blossomed. The discipline of algebra was refined by Islamic mathematicians, many based in Baghdad, which grew in reputation as a city of learning. Under the Abbasid Empire (750-1258) the House of Wisdom—the Bayt al-Hikma—was encouraged to promote knowledge.

The 9th-century Persian scholar Abu Ja’Far al-Khwarizmi is often considering the father of algebra and wrote a book about equations. Al-Khwarizmi is credited with introducing the use of Hindu-Arabic numbers, which replaced unwieldly Roman numerals.

Al-Khwarizmi’s decimal system was eventually widely adopted in Europe in the 15th century—six hundred years after it was common usage in the Islamic world.

The Golden Age of Islamic Science led to advances in trigonometry and geometry and directly contributed to the modern GPS technology which, in turn, has made possible remarkable advances in space exploration.

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Beautiful examples of early astrolabes are displayed in museums across the world. These instruments enabled sea journeys, international trade and astronomical advances that changed history and now guide spacecraft to other planets. The success of the Emirates Mars Mission is simply one of the most recent examples.

Tira Shubart is a London-based journalist and media trainer with assignments worldwide.

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