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The United Arab Emirates launches a plan to colonize Mars by 2117

The United Arab Emirates has the world's tallest building, artificial island and mall. (May 31, 2017)

On Earth, the United Arab Emirates boasts the tallest building, the largest artificial island and the biggest shopping mall, which includes an indoor ski resort and a colony of penguins.

Earth, though, has its limits, so the Persian Gulf nation is looking elsewhere.

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If all goes as planned, a century from now it will have built a fully functioning city of 600,000 people on Mars.

"We aspire in the coming century to develop science, technology and our youth's passion for knowledge," tweeted Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the country's vice president and prime minister, when he announced the project — known as "Mars 2117" — earlier this year. "This project is driven by that vision."

The Emirates, as the country is known, has joined an elite club trying to put people on Mars, including the U.S., China, Russia and a consortium of European nations, along with a private effort by the entrepreneur Elon Musk and his California company SpaceX.

The country is grooming a cadre of young scientists and engineers it hopes will collaborate with international scientists and other academics to figure out the best mode of transportation to Mars and options for food and housing once humans arrive.

"We see Mars 2117 as a multinational effort, which would set out to create a coalition of equals working together to fulfill a unified objective," said Saeed Gergawi, program director of the Mars project.

The proposed settlement doesn't have a firm name yet, but the City of Wisdom is reportedly one possibility.

The plan, which experts say is plausible with enough investment, reflects an ambition that has long distinguished the nation from many of its Middle Eastern neighbors.

That ambition has been enabled by two things: oil and absolute monarchs.

The oil was discovered in the 1950s, when the seven former British protectorates that now make up the Emirates were inhabited mainly by nomadic Bedouin tribes and the economy ran on fishing, date-farming and camel-herding. It has made the country of 9 million people one of the richest in the world per capita.

The monarchs have been in full control since independence in 1971, imposing a vision of modernity that often seems geared toward outdoing the world's biggest powers — and sometimes themselves.

The country broke ground last year on a skyscraper that will be at least 3,045 feet, or 323 feet taller than Dubai's Burj Khalifa, which is the world's tallest building.

"The new tower sets another challenge in the history of human architecture — a race the UAE deserves to lead," Maktoum, who is also ruler of Dubai, was quoted as saying. "We strive for new achievements. A new heart for our city and global landmark. Humankind has no ceiling or border but our imagination."

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, attends the opening ceremony of the 28th Arab League Summit meeting in Jordan in March.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, attends the opening ceremony of the 28th Arab League Summit meeting in Jordan in March. (Jamal Nasrallah / European Pressphoto Agency)

Maktoum, a 67-year-old poet, equestrian and author with a British education and nearly 8 million Twitter followers, has been a fount of inspirational messages for the Arab world and the driving force behind some of his country's most extravagant projects. Many of them are located in Dubai, the emirate where his family has reigned since 1833.

"If we want to remain within the ranks of the advanced world, we need to match the speed at which the world is developing," Maktoum wrote in his 2012 book, "My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence."

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For the Dubai leader, a space program is as much about the endeavor as it is about the destination.

Maktoum has described the plan to settle people on Mars as part of a broad effort to build a science and technology sector, inspire young people, reduce the country's economic dependence on oil and reclaim the region's historical legacy — dating back to the 8th century — as a center of science and astronomy.

"Mars 2117 is a seed we are sowing today to reap the fruit of new generations led by a passion for science and advancing human knowledge," he tweeted when he announced the plan.

Colonizing Mars is a challenge like no other humankind has ever undertaken.

Just getting there requires traveling more than 34 million miles, a journey that could take nearly nine months. The average temperature there is 81 degrees below zero (Dubai often tops 100 degrees). Some scientists say that living underground might be the only way to avoid cancer from cosmic rays.

"We know that there will be several key requirements, for clean air, power generation, waste management and other aspects of city management, which we can map from our current cities," said Gergawi.

Homes could possibly be built from Martian soil using 3-D printing technology, he said. It would be possible to cultivate fruits and vegetables in greenhouses, and some proteins could be grown in laboratories.

The city "would have to be wholly self-sustaining," Gergawi said.

He said the political system would likely differ from anything currently on Earth.

"Envisaging utopias is all very nice, but we have so far failed to define and operate a perfect society in thousands of years of modern human evolution," Gergawi said. "Is Mars a chance to restart a new kind of society? Yes, it is."

Sarah Amiri, deputy project manager and lead scientist at the Emirates Mars Mission.
Sarah Amiri, deputy project manager and lead scientist at the Emirates Mars Mission. (Ann M. Simmons / Los Angeles Times)

It might be tempting to dismiss such talk as space-age fantasy.

But the country has already invested more than $5.4 billion in space technologies, according to the UAE Space Agency, which was created in July 2014 and aims to develop "a world-class national space sector."

The agency's first goal is to send an unmanned weather probe called Hope to Mars in time to mark the nation's 50th birthday in 2021. UC Berkeley, Arizona State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder are assisting on the project.

On the team of more than 100 Emiratis working on the probe, the average age is 27, said Sarah Amiri, the 30-year-old lead scientist and a computer engineer. Women make up 30% of the engineers and scientists on the project, she said.

The space agency has signed agreements with space programs in the U.S. and other countries to work together on exploration, research and technology. The pact made last year with NASA calls for cooperation in "aeronautics research, and the exploration and use of airspace and outer space for peaceful purposes."

The country has already worked with South Korea and India to send satellites into orbit and plans to build and launch another one next year on its own.

And in an effort to forge international space relations, Aabar Investments has invested $380 million in Virgin Galactic since 2010, giving the state-owned fund a nearly 38% share of the space travel and exploration company started by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, according to media reports.

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"We're not afraid of taking on a monumental and very difficult goal, such as exploring another planet," Amiri said.

This diagram states the objectives of the Emirates Mars Mission and Hope probe.
This diagram states the objectives of the Emirates Mars Mission and Hope probe. (Image courtesy of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre)

But could the Emirates actually build a city on Mars in 100 years?

"I would say that an outpost on Mars is certainly possible," said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

But a city — a permanent settlement with an economy big enough to sustain itself, and not just a destination for cosmic adventure tourism — would require extensive cooperation with other countries, Pace said.

"It's not really a solo endeavor," he said.

Robert Lillis, a physicist at UC Berkeley, said that if any country is going to colonize Mars it is the U.S., because of its experience in space exploration.

"Money and political will is the simple answer for why humans are not already living on Mars," said Lillis, who worked on the NASA mission that gathered data on the Martian atmosphere with an unmanned probe that orbited the planet in 2014. "Nothing is beyond the technical or scientific scope of getting people to Mars."

Mike McGrath, former director of engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said the Emirates' other successes make its Mars aspirations seem perfectly reasonable.

"I would say that it's not only not a pie-in-the-sky ambition," he said. "It's an opportunity that society as a whole is chasing, and I think that the objectives put forth by the leadership are helping to set the stage for what is happening now in space."

"Sometimes it takes somebody new to incentivize people to move forward," he said.

This story was reported with a grant from the United Nations Foundation.

For more on global development news, see our Global Development Watch page, and follow me @AMSimmons1 on Twitter

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