Abu Dhabi space programme sets sights on Mars probe

 

Since launching its first government-owned satellite in 2009, the UAE has seen a number of projects and businesses launch within its burgeoning space industry. Guided by the UAE Space Agency (UAESA), the sector’s agenda now includes an unmanned mission to Mars, scheduled to launch in 2020, as well as a host of training and research programmes undertaken in partnership with major global actors including the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), Virgin Galactic, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although the industry remains in its nascent stages, early progress on major projects – including the Mars probe – indicates the tremendous potential to develop a world-leading space programme supported by robust private investment.

The UAE’s modern space development began in 2009 when DubaiSat-1 became the first fully UAE-owned satellite to launch, thanks to the efforts of the Emirates Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, which has since been rolled into the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). DubaiSat-2 launched in 2013. The satellite was preceded by the UAE mobile satellite communication company Thuraya’s first satellite, Thuraya-1, in 2000. It was followed by YahSat 1A and YahSat 1B, which launched in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Two new satellites are expected to launch in the near term, marking important milestones for the satellite segment. KhalifaSat will be the first satellite fully manufactured by Emirati engineers in the UAE and is expected to enter orbit in 2018. Al Yah 3 will launch in 2017, extending Yahsat’s broadband services to 19 other countries (see ICT chapter).

Uaesa

Created in September 2014, UAESA is a legally independent federal body responsible for organising, regulating and supporting the UAE’s space sector, as well as encouraging development and use of space science and technology. It is also mandated to establish international partnerships in the space sector, bolstering economic diversification through research, training and exploration activities, among other undertakings. The agency develops space sector policies, strategies and plans which require approval from the Council of Ministers prior to implementation.

One of UAESA’s primary policy mandates is to provide opportunities and scientific missions in the space sector in coordination with various national and international authorities, as well as assisting in the establishment of investment projects in the space industry. The agency has been busy over the last two years, securing a number of high-profile international partnerships as well as pushing development of the Mars probe. In December 2016 UAESA reported that it expected the global space industry to have grown by 8-9% in 2016, after double-digit expansion in 2015. A separate entity, the MBRSC, was founded in Dubai in 2015. It was responsible for launching the DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 satellites, and developing the Mars probe, although the mission itself will be undertaken by UAESA.

Partnerships

UAESA has entered into several international partnerships to support expansion of its space programme. In October 2015, for example, the UAE became the first Arab country to join the ISECG, and it has signed space collaboration agreements with the governments of Kazakhstan, Japan, India, the UK, Bahrain, Italy, China, France and Russia.

Perhaps most significantly, the government announced in February 2016 that it had met with NASA to discuss how the two could strengthen ties and liaise on space programmes, including the 2020 Mars mission and NASA’s Deep Space Network, a global array of radio antennas designed to support interplanetary spacecraft missions and communications, as well as provide radar and radio astronomy observations.

Mars Probe

NASA will play an important role in one of the most high-profile space projects under way in the UAE. UAESA’s creation was preceded by the July 2014 announcement that the UAE would launch an unmanned probe to Mars in 2020, making it the first Arab country and one of only nine in the world to do so. The probe, Hope, will weigh over 1500 kg with fuel, although it will also be outfitted with solar panels to charge its battery and communications systems. In March 2016 authorities announced that it would launch from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan in July 2020, after Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was selected to provide launch services for the mission.

Hope will travel more than 60m km in nine months, and its 2021 arrival will coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary. The project will employ more than 150 engineers, and has so far received significant international support: in November 2016 NASA announced that it will install communications capabilities on the probe, following the announcement of a collaborative partnership in June of the same year.

The mission’s results will be disseminated to over 200 institutions globally, with new data expected to lay the foundation NASA’s ongoing plans to launch a manned mission to Mars in 2030.

Nasa Collaboration

Research and development activities are set to accelerate after NASA and UAESA announced a new partnership in June 2016. The agreement extends to cooperation in space science, operational earth observation and earth science, as well as aeronautics, space operations and exploration, education, technology, and safety and mission assurance.

According to NASA the two countries are also working to identify additional areas of mutual interest, including the joint use of aircraft, scientific instruments aboard spacecraft, ground-based research facilities, spacecraft and space research platforms, and ground-based antennas for tracking, telemetry and data acquisition. They have also agreed to collaborate and implement education and public outreach programmes, with the goal of facilitating exchange of scientific data, scientists, engineers and know-how.

Efforts to train the next generation of space scientists are ramping up. Khalifa University, for example, opened the Spacecraft Platform for Astronautic and Celestial Emulation lab in 2015, another first for the region, with a focus on unmanned aerial vehicles, robots and sensing systems which mimic conditions in space. Developed by Ahmad Bani Younes, an assistant professor in the aerospace engineering programme, the lab offers mission-oriented research activities and hands-on experience conducting experiments.

The centre’s inaugural project is titled “Design, Build and Testing of Attitude Test-bed Platform for Emulating CubeSat Missions”. The project will design test control algorithms for a CubeSat, a miniaturised satellite used in space research, and eventually allow students to conduct experiments using simulated low-gravity conditions. Another major announcement came in May 2015, when authorities from UAESA, UAE University, and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority announced plans to establish a Dh100m ($27.2m) space research centre in Al Ain which will act as an incubator for space research and innovation at the federal level.

Training

In addition to new research and development initiatives, the UAE’s space programme also supports growth in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields, including a potential future generation of Emirati astronauts.

In August 2016 UAESA announced that it had partnered with US aerospace and defence contractor Lockheed Martin to offer a space training programme, months after the two signed a memorandum of understanding. Launched in partnership with Mubadala, the Space Fundamentals Training Programme is designed for early career professionals. It begins with training in space foundations in the UAE, followed by more than 200 hours of course work and a mentor-guided research project. Participants complete a US space industry immersion programme, including a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, training on the OSIRIS-REx launch to collect samples from a nearby asteroid, job shadowing, and a tour of Lockheed Martin’s virtual reality facility and satellite production areas. Additional classroom training and lectures take place at the company’s Masdar City facility, the Centre for Innovation and Security Solutions. The programme’s first batch of students graduated in December 2016.

Space Policy

Recognising the potential for private sector investment, the federal government has enacted new legislation establishing a framework for the space industry. In December 2016 UAESA announced that it had finalised its UAE Space Policy, the first to be developed in the Arab world.

The policy seeks to legislate core principles for the space sector, including support mechanisms that promote the development of a sustainable, competitive, diverse commercial space industry. It also outlines specific ways in which space activity will enhance the lives of UAE citizens and key economic sectors as part of the country’s broader goal to diversify away from hydrocarbons, while putting coherent mechanisms in place to facilitate private sector investment and partnership. The next step for UAESA will be the launch of a National Space Sector Strategy and related legislation.

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