Disappointments and joys in the largest national space project undertaken by a Gulf Arab country

Emirates suffers disappointment with Rashid and satisfaction with Sultan al-Neyadi

photo_camera PHOTO/MBRSC - Emirati technicians at the tracking centre fear disaster after the loss of communications and telemetry data from Hakuto-R, which anticipates that the descent manoeuvre on the moon is not correct

In little less than 72 hours, Emirati citizens and authorities have gone from a mood of frustration to one of great satisfaction.

From watching the Rashid rover's mid-afternoon attempt to land on the Moon on 25 April come to nothing, the inhabitants of the wealthy Gulf country were able to watch on their mobile devices and television screens as an Emirati serviceman stepped out of the International Space Station (ISS) on 28 April and became the first citizen of an Arab country to feel the void and see the Earth beneath his feet. 

Emirates' second professional astronaut, Sultan al-Neyadi, is the only Arab to have been on a maintenance mission outside the ISS. This is known as an ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA). 

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On board the ISS since 3 March for a six-month stay as a member of Expedition 69, the Emirati will be on the first long-term space mission that the orbital complex's partner countries have allowed an Arab citizen to undertake. 

Trained by NASA to carry out EVA missions, Sultan al-Neyadi and his American partner Stephen Bowen were ordered by the Control Centre in Houston, Texas, to go into outer space to perform two tasks in a single spacewalk. 

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Seven hours of work on the ISS exterior

With the orbital complex 400 kilometres from Earth, the first task was to lay wiring to install new deployable solar panels on the ISS's external structure to increase its electrical power availability. The second was to remove the already degraded electronic equipment enclosure of an S-band communications antenna that was also housed on the exterior of the large space infrastructure.

NASA has reported that the RF equipment was installed without the foresight to remove it from its location. The situation forced Bowen to use a cordless drill to remove the fasteners and Al-Neyadi to use a hammer to force its removal... but they were unsuccessful despite repeated attempts.

After seven hours and one minute floating in the cosmos, the two returned to the interior of the ISS. It was the 261st spacewalk since Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov made history on 18 March 1965 by exiting the Voskhod 2 capsule for 12 minutes at an altitude of 500 kilometres above Earth. 

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In a message via Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, stressed that Sultan al-Neyadi is "the first Emirati, the first Arab and Muslim to walk in outer space... proud of that".

Three days before the Al-Neyadi episode, Emirates had suffered a setback to its space ambitions. Its small, 10-kilogram, four-wheeled rover named Rashid was planned to roll across the moon to study its terrain, geology and properties with its high-resolution cameras. It was to descend from inside the Japanese surface module Hakuto-R - which in Japanese mythology means white rabbit - that had been launched in December from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a Falcon 9 rocket.

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Brutal Moon landing

Owned by billionaire Takeshi Hakamada's Ispace company, Hakuto-R had described a trajectory of 1.4 million kilometres that had taken it beyond the Moon and then entered lunar orbit and attempted descent.

But ambition turned to disappointment on 26 April, the date Ispace decided to assault our natural satellite. During the descent manoeuvre, when Hakuto-R was less than a hundred metres away and just minutes from touching the ground, its automatic control system failed to reduce speed to the programmed limits - 2.6 kilometres per hour - it destabilised and the technicians on the ground lost contact. 

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After verifying by telemetry that the spacecraft did not respond to repeated telecommands sent from the Tokyo control centre, Takeshi Hakamada confirmed to the media in a terse press conference that "we lost communication, so we must consider that we were unable to complete the descent to the surface of the Moon".

Hakuto-R is known to have crashed as a result of a "brutal landing", far in excess of the programmed speed. The consequence of Hakuto-R's failure has meant that the Gulf country has been unable to fulfil its dream of emulating the United States, Russia and China and becoming the fourth country to set foot on the Earth's natural satellite.

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Its maiden foray to the moon has come to nothing, just like the failed missions of Israel's Beresheet in April 2019 and India's Vikram in September 2019, the latter with the 27-kilogram Pragyan rover. But Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre have already announced the continuation of the national lunar exploration programme and the immediate development of the second Rashid rover.

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