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The University of Southampton

Southampton Optoelectronics Research Centre Graduate Leads Emirates Mars Probe

Published: 9 February 2021
Hope Probe
The Hope Probe is the Arab world's first interplanetary spacecraft.

As the Emirates Mars Mission ‘Hope Probe’ makes history as the first ever probe sent from Earth to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, a Southampton graduate is also celebrating his role in the orbiter as the Arab world’s first interplanetary spacecraft.

The Director General of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Space Agency, Dr Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, completed his MSc in Optical Fibre Communications in 2001 at Southampton, graduating with a distinction from the University’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) within the Zepler Institute, followed in 2005 by a PhD in Optical Technology – Distributed Sensing.

For the last seven years, Dr Al Ahbabi has been Director General of the Emirates Space Agency. Since July 20, 2020 – the 51st anniversary of the first manned lunar landing by the US space agency NASA – Dr Al Ahbabi has followed the progress of the Hope Probe since its launch from Tanegashima island in Japan. He now hopes the probe will create a leap in the interests of all Arabs to become more involved in science and, perhaps, motivate them to go into the space sector.

“The UAE project to explore Mars has gone through great challenges, seven years ago, and the last of these challenges was the Corona pandemic, the conditions for transporting the probe to Japan, and then the launch of the probe to Mars, which were not easy circumstances,” said Dr Al Ahbabi. “However, the people of the Emirates, with the support of the wise leadership, were able to overcome all these challenges and to achieve the impossible and make positive change happen in the region."

Mohammed Al Ahbabi
Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi is Director General of the Emirates Space Agency

The Hope Probe is a fully autonomous spacecraft, carrying three instruments to measure Mars’ atmosphere. The orbiter will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year. The probe will also reveal the mechanisms behind the upward transport of energy and particles, and the subsequent escape of atmospheric particles from the gravity of the red planet.

Since graduating from Southampton, Dr Al Ahbabi has worked in different fields and describes his current role as “a position that I cherish and value deeply. I am mandated by the UAE Government to work with a skilled team in shaping and growing the national space sector. Since we began, we’ve already accomplished so much.”

Amongst many notable highlights in his career to date, Dr Al Ahbabi says that he would definitely include building a dream team of committed professionals and working together to establish a world-class space agency in the UAE.

“Over the course of my career, I am grateful for the recognition I receive as a significant space figure on the international stage,” he continued. “I’ve participated in the formation of many R&D space centres in the UAE. Most recently, the UAE launched the Arab Space Cooperation Group, of which I was first chair. I have also been nominated to sit on several boards and serve as Vice President of the International Astronautical Federation.”

Amongst the highlights of his time at the University of Southampton, Dr Al Ahbabi said includes “its amazing culture and strong sense of community” where he says he was able to connect with talented people from different academic areas and diverse backgrounds.

“It was also there that I learned to become a successful scientific researcher and received opportunities to get my work published in some highly respected scientific journals,” Dr Al Ahbabi concluded. “Of course, the people I met during my university days had a lasting impact on my life and study experience. I made many friends and am still connected with most of them today.”

Professor Sir David Payne, Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre, said “Of the hundreds of ORC alumni in key positions all over the world, Dr Al Ahbabi is one of the most distinguished. His leadership and accomplishments are simply outstanding. It makes us so proud to have played a part in his extraordinary career.”

Click here to follow progress of the Emirates Mars Mission.

Slideshow image
The Emirates Hope Probe launched in July 2020 on its mission to Mars.
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