This panorama is a mosaic of images taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on the NASA Mars rover Curiosity while the rover was working at a site called "Rocknest" in October and November 2012. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
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The Emirates paves way for a Middle East space programme with its mission to Mars

The United Arab Emirates now has its own space agency, and plans to launch a mission to Mars by 2021.

The United Arab Emirates has announced plans to launch a mission to Mars by 2021. A first for the Arab world, the mission and accompanying Space Agency are a big deal for the UAE – scientifically and politically.

Investing in space activities is not new territory for the UAE. Its investments in space-related technology has already exceeded some US$5.4 billion, developing satellite data, mobile satellite communications and earth mapping and observation facilities. This is not surprising when we live in an age where space hardware is important for a range of practical everyday uses such as telecommunications and navigation. Accordingly, many countries have invested in purchasing satellites and their launches, data from space, and other space infrastructure.

Next level space missions
But there is something unique about the UAE’s announcement of plans to create a space agency and launch an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021. The plans indicate that the UAE will develop its own spacecraft building and perhaps also launching capabilities. While many countries participate in space activities through the purchase of hardware and launches from external providers, the ability to build and launch their own craft domestically lifts a country to the next level of the space faring elite.

The announcement also implies that the UAE plans to pursue hugely expensive space activities with a primarily scientific purpose. Yes, this project has a practical purpose in that it is to inspire UAE technology growth and the education of forthcoming scientists. However a country is also making a statement when it moves from space-related activity for purely practical purposes, to the more heady goals of exploration, inspiration and science.

Power, prestige and politics
The leap from practical to primarily scientific space activity is noteworthy. This is partly because a space programme is a way for states to assert their prestige. There is historical precedent that undertaking space activities for exploration garners prestige and indicates power: financial strength, technological capabilities and also ideologically the capability to be at the forefront of an area of research that taps into humanity’s biggest goals.

The origins of putting human-made objects into space were during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, often referred to as the first space race.

But we have moved on from the days where space was a bipolar activity: many countries have space capabilities and activities are undertaken for a wide range of reasons. Also non-state actors are increasingly active in space, including several (such as Mars One) that have planned manned missions to Mars.

Still, the UAE’s Mars mission has a political subtext on several levels. Domestically, it is timed to shore up nationalistic sentiment for the 50th anniversary of the country’s formation. Regionally, the project indicates leadership within the Middle East region. And globally, the mission marks the entry of an Arab nation into the elite club of countries with such ambitious space programs.

Success guaranteed?
Will this project work, both scientifically and in order to build international prestige? Scientifically, Mars missions have proved tricky. Many have failed, including the UK’s Mars Beagle 2 rover, which reached Mars in 2003 but failed upon landing on the Martian surface. Therefore it remains to be seen what exactly the plans are for the UAE’s Martian device, and what it will achieve.

Politically, the planned programme to Mars and also the creation of an UAE Space Agency makes a powerful statement. It puts the Middle East on the map with regards to space exploration for scientific purposes. It could also drive the creation of a Middle East space programme, akin to that of the European Space Agency.

This does not undermine the scientific value or importance of the project proposed by the UAE. The space science research community is well-networked transnationally, and a well-funded project to the red planet by the UAE should be welcomed.

Jill Stuart volunteers occasionally for the UK Labour Party.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile