UAE shaping future of Earth observation, satellites and space exploration

02 March 2020
UAE shaping future of Earth observation, satellites and space exploration

With its space sector’s comprehensive scope and continuing unprecedented pace of growth, the UAE is shaping the future of Earth observation, satellites and space exploration. Valued at more than US$400 billion globally[1], the sector is having a transformational impact on businesses, citizens and governments around the world, including within the UAE.

The UAE's interest in space dates back to the mid-1970s, when the visionary Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan met with the Apollo mission team and emphasized that the UAE is continuously striving to be at the forefront of humanity’s development, and seeks to acquire every innovation that may benefit its people now and in the future.

The Arab world’s legacy in space stretches back centuries to when maritime traders relied on constellations to navigate the seas, and Arab astronomers were at the forefront of naming our galaxy’s stars. Today, the UAE is in the midst of revitalizing the Arab world’s historic leadership in the study of space. The nation is working with international partners and talented future Emirati leaders to explore Mars, conduct pioneering research on the ISS, deliver cutting-edge telecommunications solutions around the world, monitor the impacts of climate change, and establish world-class space science and engineering institutions.

The UAE’s national space sector is comprised of 57 space-related entities, providing 3,100 rewarding jobs and including five space science and research centers, three universities offering space degrees, and the world-renowned satellite operators Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat) and Thuraya, YahSat’s mobile satellite services subsidiary. In total, the emerging space nation’s investments in the sector have already exceeded AED 22 billion.

The nation’s commitment to the commercial space sector and telecommunications industry extends back decades, well before the establishment of the UAE Space Agency. The UAE was an early and active member in the development and application of a number of regional and international satellite and radio-communication regulatory frameworks, and is today a signatory to four major international space treaties, including the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (Rescue Agreement).

The UAE’s first satellite, Thuraya-1, which was launched in 2000, became the Middle East’s first mobile telecommunications satellite. Other commercial satellites include Al Yah 3, owned by Yahsat, which provides cutting-edge Ka-band coverage and support to 19 markets across Africa, covering 60 percent of the population, as well as more than 95 percent of the Brazilian population.

Currently, the UAE has 10 satellites in orbit, each serving a different purpose, with another 8 satellites being manufactured.

The first satellite designed, tested and manufactured entirely by Emirati engineers, KhalifaSat, was launched in October of 2018. The advanced Earth observation satellite was designed and built at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC). Shortly thereafter, MYSAT-1, a nanosatellite built by a team of 20 UAE students was launched, and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and AURAK are hard at work on developing a 3U CubeSat called MeznSat, which is due to be launched later this year, to study methane and other gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

In addition, the Satellite 813 is currently under construction at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) at UAE University in Al Ain. The project forms a part of the Arab Space Cooperation Group’s efforts to further develop the region’s space capabilities and the satellite will have the capability to contribute to various sustainability initiatives around the world.

The Arab Space Cooperation Group is an initiative launched by the UAE and comprises 14 Arab countries. It holds the objective of consolidating the strengths and capabilities of the Arab world in order to enhance its contribution to the global space sector and space science research and development.

The UAE has collaborated with international institutions and companies in the development of its expansive satellite portfolio. The UAE worked with Orbital ATK, recently acquired by Northup Grumman, to build the Al Yah 3 satellite in Virginia; partnered with Boeing to build the Thuraya-3 satellite, which provides a range of services over a large geographic region; and is collaborating with Arianespace and Airbus Defense and Space to develop and launch its Falcon Eye satellites.

The nation’s international cooperation extends well beyond the manufacture and design of space assets. The UAE Space Agency has signed more than 30 significant agreements with major international space sector bodies, including NASA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Roscosmos, and the Indian Space Agency. These framework agreements provide significant opportunities for mutual collaboration in areas of research, education, policy formation and space sector regulation.

The UAE is a member of, and contributes significantly to defining the future of the space sector through its involvement with United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), Group on Earth Observations (GEO), and the International Astronautical Federation (IAF).

The UAE Space Agency participated in every high level forum hosted by UNOOSA since it became a member in 2016, including two forums held in Dubai. The Agency’s steadfast participation and contribution to the forums culminated in the historic signing of the Dubai Declaration, which brought together the broader space community to set recommendations to further shape and position space activities as drivers of innovation, socio-economic development and diplomacy for a sustainable future.

This regional and international engagement has enabled the UAE to help shape the future of the space sector and directly contributed to its own ambitious and expansive space exploration program. The missions, activities and goals that make up the program are outlined and regulated by a comprehensive series of strategies, plans and laws developed by the UAE Space Agency since its establishment five years ago.

These include the UAE National Space Policy, launched in 2016, and approved on September 4, 2016, by the Council of Ministers, headed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, which guided the development of the UAE’s National Space Law, National Space Strategy, and National Space Investment Promotion Plan, which were collectively approved by the country’s Cabinet of Ministers and our Federal National Council in 2019.

The UAE’s National Space Law is the first of its kind in the Middle East and one of the most comprehensive and forward-looking in existence today. It encompasses a wide range of potential activities, including manned space flight and space mining, and creates an environment that encourages investment in space science, research, education and innovation, while also serving as a model for other emerging space nations.

Alongside the law, the country’s National Space Strategy aims to strengthen relations with international organizations in the space sector, support scientific research, promote innovation, and attract and train pioneering and innovative individuals to lead the space industry both locally and internationally.

Building upon both the strategy and the expansive scope of the law, the UAE’s National Space Investment Promotion Plan seeks to attract foreign investment in the country’s emerging space sector, while also encouraging the country’s own investment vehicles to invest in the industry, either within or outside the country.

While often less attention-grabbing than the UAE’s ambitious space exploration efforts, these regulatory frameworks and legislative documents represent the foundation of the country’s entire space program and serve as examples of best practice and the means by which emerging nations can support the entire planet’s efforts to explore space and better understand the universe. These frameworks enable research, attract investment, facilitate space missions, define international partnerships, and ultimately contribute to the development of the entire global space sector.

The UAE is undoubtedly leading the region’s space exploration efforts, reflected by the nation’s ambitious goal of launching the world’s first Arab interplanetary mission to Mars in July of this year, with the mission’s spacecraft scheduled to reach the Red Planet’s orbit in 2021 – the same year the UAE will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The Emirates Mars Mission, which is focused on the development and launch of the Hope Probe, continues to progress and is rapidly approaching completion and readiness for launch. In 2018, the Emirati team leading its development completed its design phase, and in 2019 its assembly was completed and testing of its various systems and instruments began.

Once orbiting Mars, the Hope Probe will analyze the planet’s atmosphere and attempt to develop a comprehensive understanding of the Martian atmosphere. The probe, in particular, will study the climate change experienced by Mars as well as other factors such as the reason for Mars losing hydrogen and oxygen into space. It will also observe weather phenomena on the planet, such as dust storms, and work to uncover the causes of the corrosion of the surface on Mars.

Studying the Red Planet will help us gain a better understanding of our planet and its atmosphere, hopefully helping us to mitigate climate change on Earth in addition to exploring the potential for humans to inhabit the planet.

The Hope Probe will be launched from the Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC), in Japan, where it will be transported in a rocket similar to those used to launch satellites into space. It is expected to take the Hope Probe seven to nine months to arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

In the meantime, MBRSC’s efforts to develop a Mars Science City outside of Dubai are progressing steadily, with the end goal of welcoming scientists and researchers from around the world to conduct experiments in a simulated Martian-like environment.

In the end, both the Emirates Mars Mission and Mars Science City are merely the UAE’s initial footsteps towards the greater goal of bringing together nations from around the world to establish a human settlement on Mars by the year 2117. This ambitious challenge and the UAE’s entire space program serve as sources of inspiration to millions across the region and the world, and reflect the high level of public interest in the space sector in the UAE, particularly amongst youth.

The UAE Astronaut Program is among the nation’s most visible and popular initiatives, having attracted more than 4,000 applicants from a range of scientific sectors and ultimately leading to the selection of Hazzaa Al Mansouri to become first Emirati astronaut. He spent eight days on the International Space Station (ISS) in the fall of 2019, conducting a range of experiments and documenting his journey in great detail.

UAE Nationals across the country are currently being encouraged to apply for the second round of the UAE Astronaut Program, with those from all backgrounds being considered - from engineers to pilots, military personnel to teachers, and those involved in STEM and other professions.

Alongside the UAE’s international headline-grabbing projects and programs, it is also constantly developing and expanding the capabilities and activities of its national research and development centers.

The National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) at UAE University in Al Ain, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) in Dubai, Sharjah Academy of Astronomy, Space sciences & Technology, NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Space Science, and the Yahsat Space Laboratory are in the midst of developing innovative new technologies and pushing the envelope when it comes to space research.

The NSSTC is working to develop national research programs in space science and technology by conducting cutting-edge applied research, training future UAE space leaders, creating new space technologies, and promoting space science and technology across the country through educational programs.

MBRSC is working on the Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope Probe – a historic undertaking in its own right, under the supervision of the UAE Space Agency. MBRSC has also successfully developed KhalifaSat, Dubai Sat-1, Dubai Sat-2 and the Nayif-1 nanosatellite, which were designed and manufactured by talented Emirati engineers. In addition, the center is responsible for a range of other space projects such as the UAE Astronaut Program.

The Sharjah Academy of Astronomy, Space sciences & Technology conducts research on space science and technology, and has observatories and laboratories for developing a wide variety of satellites. The NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Space Science was established in 2015, and primarily focuses on the study of the internal structure of the Sun and stars through stellar seismology and modelling. The Yahsat Space Laboratory, established by experts from the Masdar Institute, Yahsat and Orbital ATK, strives to develop and advance technologies within the space sector. It does so by providing the students and faculty of Masdar Institute’s Masters in Space Systems and Technology with the facilities required to construct, test and launch miniature satellites.

These institutions, together with every other aspect of the UAE’s space sector – from the ambitious Mars mission to a detailed Space Law – form a holistic, comprehensive and growing hub for space within the Middle East.

With its international reach, and continuous engagement with the space community and regulatory organizations, the UAE is shaping the future of Earth observation, satellites and space exploration within the region and around the world.