Early Sunday morning, NASA announced it had signed a "significant" space agreement with the United Arab Emirates' space agency, one that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said will help advance NASA's journey to Mars.
Bolden has spent the last few days in the Middle East in talks with representatives from Israel, Jordan and the UAE to talk about the possibility of cooperation on NASA's Mars mission. The agreement between NASA and the UAE came as something of a surprise, as there had been little indication that such an agreement between the two space agencies was imminent.
Representatives from the two agencies first met at NASA's DC Headquarters in March of 2015, and expressed interest in collaborating earlier this year at a meeting in Abu Dhabi.
"Every single nation can play a part in our journey to Mars, in our scientific journey of discovery and in the next phase of humanity's development as a spacefaring people," said Bolden, writing about his "space diplomacy" mission to the Middle East on his blog.
Although the UAE's space agency was only created in 2014, the country has had a small presence in space for about three decades and plans to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2020.
The UAE's Mars mission has come under fire for being too ambitious, but then again so has NASA's plan to put humans on the Red Planet by the 2030s due to lack of congressional funding.
"NASA is leading an ambitious journey to Mars that includes partnerships with the private sector and many international partners," said Bolden. "I am confident this new framework agreement with the UAE Space Agency will help advance this journey, as well as other endeavors in the peaceful exploration of outer space."
The exact nature of the UAE/NASA deal is unclear, and may be little more than another memorandum of understanding such has been made between the UAE and several other countries in the last few months, including China, Russia, the UK, and Japan. According to NASA's statement on the agreement, it included a formal "Implementing Arrangement" that outlines Mars exploration as the first field of cooperation between the agencies and establishes a steering committee to identify areas of mutual interest.
The NASA statement further details the agreement in vague terms about "cooperation and collaboration in space science, operational Earth observation and Earth science, aeronautics, space operations and exploration, education, technology, safety and mission assurance, and other areas." This may include joint use of aircraft, spacecraft, scientific instruments, and ground-based antennas for tracking or data acquisition.
Some of these projects are already underway: For example, the UAE signed an agreement with the US Strategic Command to share data and services related to space situational awareness in April.
NASA was contacted for further comment clarifying the nature of the UAE agreement, but had not responded at the time of this writing. This piece will be updated with further information if it becomes available.