In September 2019 Hazzaa Al Mansoori, born in Al Wathba in Abu Dhabi, became the first Arab to visit the International Space Station (ISS) in an eight-day mission accompanied by two fellow crew members from Russia and the US. Al Mansoori’s successful journey captured the emirate’s imagination and helped raise the global profile of the UAE’s space programme. The sector also received a boost thanks to recent technological advancements and investment from the government, which aims to use this emerging industry to develop the UAE’s scientific, technical and educational strength, as well as its global prestige. With the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) and other key sector players located in Abu Dhabi, developments on the national scale are likely to have tangible benefits for the emirate.
Although the sector is increasingly competitive and there are high costs attached with space exploration, the authorities are convinced that the benefits will outweigh the risks. The year 2020 is set to see further milestones for the space industry, with the Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope probe scheduled to launch in midJuly. Despite global disruption caused by the Covid-19 crisis, the UAESA is taking steps to prepare for the launch, taking into account the need to maximise safety.
The UAE’s space exploration industry has expanded rapidly since the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) was established in 2006 in Dubai. Abu Dhabi has been a major contributor to these developments; Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat), a subsidiary of Mubadala Investment Company, the emirate’s sovereign investment corporation for strategic development, launched its first satellite, Al Yah 1, in 2011. This and other successful projects in the early stages of the UAE’s space industry enabled the country to leverage technological advances in digitisation and miniaturisation, which brought down the size and cost of satellites and enabled smaller players to enter the space race. In 2014 the UAESA was established and is now headquartered in Masdar City, placing Abu Dhabi at the heart of the Emirati space exploration sector. Research and development (R&D) programmes have also played a key role in the industry’s progress, with universities across Abu Dhabi invited to orient their curriculum towards the space programme. In 2018 a UAE-wide mini-satellite design competition was held by the UAESA in partnership with aerospace giant Boeing and Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University (KU). The winning satellite, designed by KU students, was launched in November 2018 and is set to stay in orbit until 2021.
While much attention is likely to be focused on the upcoming Hope probe mission in 2020, the industry has a broader set of objectives for the years ahead. In March 2019 the government approved the UAE National Space Strategy 2030, which the UAESA is responsible for implementing. The strategy is divided into six objectives, 18 programmes and 71 initiatives, which aim to support the expansion of 85 different entities. “Our goal is not only to develop the UAESA, but also to grow a competitive and sustainable space sector and economy,” Fahad Al Mheiri, executive director of the space sector at the UAESA, told OBG.
The six objectives are to provide competitive space applications and services; develop advanced R&D and manufacturing capabilities; launch space scientific and exploration missions; create space culture and expertise; ensure a supporting legislative framework and infrastructure is in place; and promote effective local and international partnerships and investment.
In terms of the latter, the development of local capacity is a key part of the UAESA’s growth plans. “The pool of available local talent in the UAE’s space industry is expanding rapidly. This is being fuelled by more students selecting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Masood M Sharif Mahmood, CEO of Yahsat, told OBG. “The government, businesses and academia are working together to ensure that Emiratis play a central role in the evolution of the space industry.”
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