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UAE plans Mars mission in heated space race


Not content with building the world's tallest building or biggest shopping mall, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is setting its sight on something out of this world: Mars.

The oil-rich country announced Wednesday that it had entered the heated space race to the red planet, with plans to send up an unmanned probe by 2021. UAE also said it would set up a new space agency, as it looks to diversify its economy and build up its technology sector.

"The UAE Mars probe represents the Islamic world's entry into the era of space exploration. We will prove that we are capable of delivering new scientific contributions to humanity," UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan said in a statement.

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It will take nine months for the probe to make the more-than 60 million kilometre (37 million mile) journey. The UAE's investments in space technologies exceed 20 billion dirhams ($5.4 billion), according to the government, and a successful mission to Mars would be the first to another planet from the Arab world.

Bruce Weaver | AFP | Getty Images

Missions to Mars have been a long-running theme of science fiction films, but an increasing number of both companies and countries are setting their sights on the planet. Billionaire Elon Musk said he wants to establish a colony on the red planet and has been testing a reusable rocket to achieve the goal.

To date, there have only been a handful of successful missions to Mars, after the first landing by a USSR rover in 1971. The first images from Mars came in 1969 from a U.S. probe that flew by the red planet but didn't actually land. Currently two rovers called Opportunity and Curiosity are roaming Mars and sending back images, in an effort to determine the planet's habitability.

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Analysts said the UAE's moves in this area had come at the right time, but warned it could spark political tensions with some of its gulf neighbours.

"Politically, it is challenging," Wayne Plucker, director of aerospace and defense at consultant Frost and Sullivan, told CNBC in a phone interview.

"Here you are launching a missile over the top of Iran and they might not take kindly to it. I would think there would need to be some understandable agreement between them."

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal