To boldly go: A new state-led, UAE-based space agency aims to send an unmanned probe to Mars

In July 2014 the UAE’s leaders announced the launch of a full-fledged space exploration programme. The establishment of the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) followed more than a decade of development activities in aerospace engineering and satellite communications, and is at the centre of a long-term plan to build Emirati capabilities “in the fields of aerospace and space exploration, to enter the space industry, and to make use of space technology in a way that enhances the country’s development plans”, according to the UAE’s president, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The UAESA’s first objective is an unmanned mission to Mars, which is scheduled to take place in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s foundation. This plan aligns neatly with the country’s economic diversification and technological innovation strategies. “There is a strong push to enhance the development of the science and technology sectors,” Salem Humaid AlMarri, the assistant director-general of scientific and technology affairs at the UAE-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), told OBG. “Space technology is part of the National Innovation Strategy. Those strategies are set to further diversify the economy and prepare the country for when it will no longer depend on oil and gas.”

Bold Plans

A handful of domestic firms have been involved in space-related activities for over a decade. Thuraya, a satellite telecoms firm based in Dubai, launched the Middle East’s first mobile telecoms satellite in 2000. Yahsat, a subsidiary of Mubadala, the development fund of the government of Abu Dhabi, controls two communications satellites and has plans to launch a third in 2016. Finally, the Dubai government has launched two satellites of its own – DubaiSat-1 in 2009 and DubaiSat-2 in 2013 – both of which were developed by the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology in conjunction with the South Korean firm Satrec Initiative. The for* mer institute has since become part of the MBRSC.

More recently, the UAE has ramped up its plans for space-related development and exploration. The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) is being developed at the MBRSC. (https://pestkill.org/) Initiated in 2015, the EMM involves sending an unmanned probe – called Al Amal, Arabic for “hope” – to carry out the first comprehensive look at the Martian atmosphere, including current and ancient weather patterns, and climate dynamics. The probe will be designed and built in the UAE by Emirati engineers, and is scheduled to launch in July 2020. From earth it will travel more than 60m km in around 200 days to reach Mars’s orbit by the first quarter of 2021. It is scheduled to carry out primary scientific operations for two years, with the potential for another two years of secondary operations.

Terrestrial Benefits

The development of the EMM is expected to have far-reaching positive implications for the UAE’s science and technology industry, and the economy at large. “Doing our own research on a new technology and developing it in-house makes it more attractive and sustainable for a nation,” Al Marri told OBG. “We can then commercialise our innovations, reducing our reliance on expensive imports, while at the same time boosting our capacity to export new technology.”

Other potential benefits of the project include increased international cooperation, the development of the UAE’s human resources and incentives for domestic firms to move into space-related fields. As well as potentially partnering with the US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency, the UAESA has announced formal partnerships with research universities in the US, including the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of California-Berkeley. The government is also promoting the EMM at schools and universities to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and maths education. Finally, the state hopes that the project will increase private sector activity in various areas.