The US and Russia have for years dominated the race to explore Mars. Since the 1960s, they have worked on dozens of missions.

Now, for the first time, an Arab country — the United Arab Emirates — says it will give it a try, as well.

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the plan in 2014. The UAE will send an unmanned vehicle into space in 2020. It will launch from Japan, and the hope is that it will begin orbiting Mars by 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the country's founding.

Omran Sharaf manages the UAE's Mars Mission.

Shirin Jaafari

"We're going to be studying the Martian atmosphere," explains Omran Sharaf, project manager for the mission. "We're going to be studying the relationship between the lower and the higher level of the atmosphere. We'll be providing a global view of Mars at different times of the day, at different seasons."

Sharaf says billions of years ago, the planet was very similar to Earth.

"Then something went wrong, and it lost its atmosphere and turned into a dead planet," he says. That's why the scientific community is interested in understand what happened. Knowing more about Mars, he adds, can help us get a better handle on our own planet.

The Mars Mission is staffed by Emiratis — something that's rare in a country where there are more guest workers and foreigners than locals. There are women on the team, as well — including lead scientist Sarah Amiri.

But a mission to Mars requires some outside help, and that's where the US comes in. The UAE has partnered with American universities like the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

"They're going to help us out on working on this mission and develop the know-how we need," Sharaf says.

This is a snapshot of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai.

Courtesy of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.

Sharaf himself studied in Charlottesville, Virginia. He says he misses those days.

Today, he's back in his home country to help this mission become a reality.

"When I was in college people used to ask me, 'What is your dream?' And I was like, 'I would really like to work on a space program one day,'" he explains. But at the time, the UAE didn't have a huge space program.

"By the time I graduated, I didn't think this was going to happen, and all of the sudden this opportunity comes up," he says. "I'm like, 'Wow.' So, when people say, 'Dream big, and don't let things stop you from dreaming' ... this is actually so true."

Come launch day, Sharaf says, a lot will be going through his mind.

It makes you "happy, scared, proud, worried, stressed, overwhelmed."

Still, Sharaf is looking forward to that day because if this mission is successful, it will be the first Arab Islamic mission to another planet. A giant leap for this relatively young country in the Middle East.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI