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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The anti-chemical weapons technology that could help rebuild Syria

A new compact chemical agent clean-up system offers hope to formerly deadly conflict zones.

The US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” (Darpa) is an elite organisation tasked with developing secretive military technologies. True to form, its logo is oddly reminiscent of a supervillain’s – imposing and stark. Some of its projects, too, are futuristic weapons with darkly amusingly self-aware names, such as Mahem - a kind of self-forging molten metal spear that can penetrate armour. But not all of Darpa’s programmes add to the chaos of conflict. They have recently developed prototypes of a self-contained treatment system to neutralise chemical weapons and “scrub” the chemical-tainted earth clean.

 

Recently it has been impossible to avoid seeing the effects of chemical weapons. Clips of Syrian children simultaneously suffocating and crying uncontrollably as a result of the nerve gas sarin have become disturbingly ubiquitous, even despite chemical agents in warfare being banned. Less well-known, however, is the fact that chemical weapons are so toxic that the ground that they touch becomes unsafe.

The default methods for dealing with conventional munitions are usually open incineration or controlled detonation, also used for some chemical weapons – but the method, as well as the facility where neutralisation can occur, depends on the kind of chemical that has been weaponised. There are four types of chemical agent, which can be liquidised or in gas form. Each has a unique persistence (length of time it can remain dangerously concentrated in a given environment), and target: attacking the nervous system, the respiratory system, the blood, or cell tissues.

An ex-US Navy analyst once divulged to me that one of the reasons why chemical weapons are used in Syria is because they trigger an immediate halt to any plans for ground troops to be deployed in the affected area. Without knowledge of which agent was used, there is the risk that personnel do not have the relevant personal protective equipment, and they cannot be sent in unprepared. At the moment, troops are given masks and skin decontamination lotion kits, but scientists are also developing systems to protect soldiers against chemical attacks. The most hopeful potential is a caged “bioscavenger” – small enough to circulate (undetected by the immune system) throughout the bloodstream to counter the poisonous impact of certain chemical agents.

However, for civilians in the warzone, the effects are much longer lasting. Even after the agents have mostly dissipated in the air, and become dilute enough to breathe in, the ground retains some toxic qualities from the weapon’s decomposition. Darpa’s new machine – the “Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents” (ACDC) – is significant because it is “agnostic”, i.e. unspecific to one kind of chemical weapon. The self-sufficient neutralisation units can also be used to safely dispose of bulk stockpiles of chemical agents alone and with any kind of contaminated soil. There are two distinct systems, a “dry pollution control process” that is suitable for arid soil, and a “wet” one that uses a slightly different procedure.

Darrel Johnston, senior programme manager for ACDC’s developer – Southwest Research Institute’s chemistry and chemical engineering division – said that “it is in [the US’s] national interest to have a field operable unit that can safely dispose of chemical warfare agents and other dangerous chemicals on the front lines in a timely manner."

The ACDC works similarly to a catalytic converter in a car, which makes polluting gases less toxic - it neutralises residual salts and acidic gases. Initial indoors tests demonstrated a probable 99.99 per cent success rate of eliminating all harmful by-products of chemical weapons usage. The resultant non-hazardous compounds can be left in the ground, without posing a risk to the environment or anyone’s health. This is a much “greener” course of action than conventional destruction techniques, which are typically very complex and require several stages due to inefficient treatment of waste.

Two of the most significant aspects of ACDC are its portability, as it is compact enough to fit into a shipping container, and its low cost. Doug Weir, manager of the Toxic Remnants of War Project, told me that there are many legacy cases, such as the WWII mustard shells abandoned on the Pacific Islands, “where infrastructure is limited and where the scale of the problem doesn't justify the price tag of a formal facility - where a mobile system would be really valuable”.

There are already attempts to neutralise the after effects of chemical weapons in Syria, but up until now, each weapon has required a different kind of method, which makes the process expensive and wasteful. According to Weir, regarding the logistical and security nightmare of processing roughly 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons, the priority is likely to have been removing the weapons from the conflict zone “at all costs”. However, “there were a number of environmental groups who raised concerns about waste disposal from the [at-sea] process”. This is because each of the numerous methods used (one per chemical compound) yielded risky by-products that later had to be broken down further. Overall, the process has cost in the hundreds of millions of US dollars and generated 5.7 million litres of waste. In contrast, Darpa hopes that ACDC will cost just 1 per cent of the Syrian mission.

Although this all sounds optimistic, Gwyn Winfield, Editorial Director of CBRNe World, reminded me that “any system that attempts demilitarisation needs, by its nature, to be in a permissive environment”, meaning that Syria would have to be stable enough for ACDC’s arms control work to be meaningful.

Similarly, Dr. Michelle Bentley, author of Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Exploiting the Forbidden, told me that “this technology will not challenge the political problems behind chemical weapons use”. In particular, Assad has proven unwilling to part from his chemical stockpiles. She added that “we can’t just think about what we do about chemical weapons – we have to think more about how we do it”.

At the moment, the constraints on outside forces are such that the UN allowed the Syrian army to accompany inspectors to all of Assad’s chemical production and storage facilities, even those in rebel-held territory. The resulting tensions made it clear that – rather than technology being the limiting factor – the biggest task would be mitigating the political pitfalls of disarmament in such a polarised country. It is impossible to tell when Syrian air will be safe for civilians to breathe, or its soil will stop being too toxic to grow food.

However, those who have been forced from their homes by the noxious attacks may take some comfort in the knowledge that once the lab testing stages are over, Darpa plans to use ACDC in the field. If successful, ACDC will be rolled out as part of standard US military vehicles so that any chemical agent (combined with any kind of soil) could be neutralised, and former conflict zones might become slightly safer and healthier.

For now, at least ACDC can offer the hope of a clean start.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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