UAEU project aims to uncover Mars mysteries and support Emirati mission to a distant world

Three Emirati students are being trained to support the UAE’s goal of unlocking the secrets of Mars, through a United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) project designed to produce greater insight into the Red Planet.

The United Arab Emirates Space Agency plans to send a probe, Al Amal – which translates as ‘Hope’ - to the Earth’s neighboring world, with the aim being for it to reach the orbit of Mars by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s independence.

And UAEU is playing its part to support the Emirates Mars Mission and the UAE’s galactic ambitions through developing a machine-learning model that will literally bring a new dimension to analyzing the quality of satellite images received from the planet, and extracting highly-detailed information about its landscape. The aim of the project is to support the cultivation of a new generation of Emirati space professionals.

A trio of UAEU students – Aysha AlMheiri and Mariam AlMarzooqi, who are both studying computer science, and Asyal AlNaqbi, an information security undergraduate – are working with Professor Nazar Zaki, Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering within UAE’s College of Information Technology, on the project, the hyper-accuracy of which will allow studies of the findings of Mars planetary science research to be streamlined.

“The project is in line with the Emirates Mars Mission, which will generate visibility and results that put the UAE at the forefront of Red Planet exploration,” explained Professor Zaki.

“Through this project, the three students are being educated and trained to develop advanced machine-learning techniques capable of analyzing planetary satellite data. They will have the opportunity to foster their research skills and work with experts in the field of machine-learning, data-mining and predictive analytics.”

While Mars – the only planet whose surface can be viewed in any detail through an Earthbound telescope – is now understood to be cold and dry, scientists believe it was once far warmer and wetter. Satellite imagery obtained from various exploratory missions has, for many years, been used in a bid to determine whether there was once life on the planet – and whether there is life there now.

“It is desirable to develop automated techniques to validate the quality of these images, extract detailed information – such as the effects of climate change on Mars – and convert them into 3D images for better analysis and exploration,” said Professor Zaki.

“Unlike previous approaches, several ensemble machine-learning models will be used through our project to improve the classification accuracy of the image quality. Once the image is validated and a threshold for acceptable image quality is set, another model will be enabled to automatically extract valuable information about micro-landforms, such as Aeolian processes – how the wind shapes the surface of a planet – and glacial and volcanic features.”

Dr Zaki said extracting such detailed information from images is a challenge because they only leave “a small footprint” and can be large in number or high in density, making sophisticated and accurate machine-learning techniques a potentially vital tool in studying a distant planet.

“Humans have an uncanny ability to perceive and analyze the structure of the 3D world from visual input, and therefore our method will be extended to produce 3D images from the existing 2D images, for better analysis and visualization,” he said. “This model will also be used to predict future climate changes.

Two of the three students involved in the UAEU project have completed a data-mining course to support the interplanetary analysis they are undertaking, and all of them will contribute to its final report and present their findings.

The Al Amal spacecraft that is at the center of the Emirates Mars Mission – the preparation and implementation of which is being overseen by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre - must blast off from Earth during a brief and critical ‘launch window’ in July 2020.

It will cruise more than 60m km in about 200 days, entering the Mars orbit during the first quarter of 2021 and beginning its science operation in the middle of that year. This operation will last two years, with the potential to continue for a further two.

The Emirates Mars Mission is managed by a 75-strong, all-Emirati team divided into seven groups, which will work with UAE universities and research institutes to develop the science aspect of the mission and analyze its findings and data.

The project is being financially sponsored by the UAEU’s National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC).

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Dec 10, 2019