Science Spacebound First Look

UAE wants to build Chicago-sized city on Mars by next century

Move over SpaceX. The United Arab Emirates has plans for a large Martian settlement, too. 

The planet Mars is seen in an image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope taken Aug. 27, 2003. The United Arab Emirates has announced a plan to settle a colony on the Red Planet by the year 2117.
NASA/Reuters | Caption

Casting their gaze above the vanishingly thin spire of the half-mile tall Burj Khalifa, the United Arab Emirates is reaching for the stars.

Not content with the glamour of world’s tallest skyscraper, a palm tree-shaped island, and an indoor ski resort, the oil soaked UAE has recently been thinking bigger, with more socially minded investment projects such as a flower-shaped eco-city and a “happiness city.” Now they’re doubling down on that trend with a plan to establish a Chicago-sized city on Mars.

On Tuesday at the World Government Summit in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, unveiled the Mars 2117 Project. As the name suggests, it aims to build a human settlement on Mars over the next hundred years.

To say the project is ambitious in scale would be an understatement. "The city is roughly the size of Chicago. It has a population of 600,000," Saeed Al Gergawi, manager of the scientific and research committee of the World Government Summit, told CNBC.

The undertaking really takes the “journey of a thousand miles” philosophy to heart, since this odyssey will be much, much longer. And that first step is research. The project starts with the creation of a scientific team to develop faster transportation, and better ways to live in space, The Washington Post reports. The country also hopes to set up special space programs at national universities. 

This team will be Emirati at first, eventually widening to include scientists from other countries as well. “Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality,” Sheikh Maktoum explained, according to technology new website Futurism.

While the UAE hasn’t been a big player in the new space race thus far, the new initiative isn’t their first sign of celestial ambitions. First revealed in 2014, just last month the Emirates Mars Mission announced that its unmanned Hope spacecraft is on track for a 2020 launch.

It now joins a crowded field of Mars hopefuls, including NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, which chief executive officer Elon Musk famously founded for just that purpose. Rather than next century, Mr. Musk has his sights set on next decade, a timeline some think overly optimistic. His plan, announced last fall, has been criticized as being heavy on hard transportation details but light on soft biological ones that would explain how people would eat, breath, and stay healthy on the Red Planet.

In this respect, the UAE’s long-term approach may be one of the most down-to-Earth of the bunch. Maktoum took to Twitter to tease images of the view he hopes his descendants can enjoy.

But on at least one point, the UAE agrees with SpaceX: The price has to come down. Mr. Gergawi told CNBC that Musk’s figure of $200,000 per one-way ticket is “not an unreasonable number,” but should get cheaper over time.

“When you look at 100 years from now, it could probably be much lower by a factor of 10,” he added.

To those who might say that’s a naive view, Maktoum suggested finding optimism in past and present trends: “Whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream.”