The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on Monday its strategic framework for a newly established space agency, and also the first academic space program in the federation. The Space Research Center will be the first of its kind in the Middle East, as will be a graduate degree program in Advanced Space Science at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and Orbital ATK Inc. What’s the federation’s end game, though? Last year, UAE announced it will launch an orbiting probe around Mars in 2020. Is it all about scientific missions or, like Dubai’s towering skyscrapers, merely a show of force, of grandeur? Apparently, it’s part science, part showoff, part money. It’s hard to tell at this point which weighed more when UAE first considered its new space agency and subsequent missions.
“The establishment of a fully-fledged space sector in the UAE, with all necessary human resources, infrastructure and scientific research, is a primary national objective. It requires everyone involved to work as one team to establish the UAE’s leadership in this sector and to build advanced scientific capabilities in the space domain,” His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum said in a statement. “The Hope Probe and the UAE Space Agency are milestones for the development of the UAE.”
This year, 20 students will be selected to travel, overseas and in the UAE, in partnership with the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and the Information and Communication Technology Fund. Some of the students will visit and study at NASA.
“We started talking to the Ministry of Education and the Abu Dhabi Education Council to find out how to inject into their curriculum some space subjects that will hopefully inspire some students studying science and technology,” said Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi, the agency’s director general.
“They might go study or build a career in space. We want to create a research and development environment in the UAE because space is a great asset for innovation. So it is our objective to create that environment.”
Last year, the country announced its plans of sending a probe to Mars by 2020. Called “Hope”, the probe will be tasked with producing the “first-ever truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere,” according to Omran Sharaf, the Emirates Mars Mission Project Manager. All signs point to the fact Mars once had a wet atmosphere, very much akin to ours. Learning how the Martian atmosphere evolved and got to where it is today could be very useful to studying our own atmosphere, and maybe take preventive steps that might avert the same happening on Earth. The name of the probe was not selected by chance. It seeks to inspire millions of Arabs around the world.
If the UAE succeeds in its mission, it will become the fourth space agency to put a probe into orbit around Mars. Could it do it though? They’ve only announced the framework for their space agency today, and they want to launch the probe in 2020. Five years sounds like a really short time for some an ambitious mission. It almost sounds like a kid who just discovered how to code a website wants to build the new facebook from scratch. But this is a very, very wealthy kid. Last year, India became the third country in history to send a probe in Mars’ orbit, all at just 11% of the cost of a similar US probe (Maven). The entire project also took only 14 months from the first outline on a whiteboard to mission launch. UAE has a lot more money than India to spare on space programs, and there’s plenty of talent to go about. They don’t have to wait for their students to form – that’s just a launching platform for subsequent missions which are truly fully developed locally. They’re already getting plenty of help anyway. The University of Colorado, Boulder — part of the team that sent NASA’s Maven mission to Mars — will lead a team of universities to help with the UAE’s science goals.
There also private UAE-based space ventures which are doing well. Thuraya, an Emirates-based satellite phone operator, was responsible for the country’s first commercial satellite, launched in 2000. DubaiSat-1, the first government-backed satellite blasted into orbit atop a Russian rocket launched from Kazakhstan in 2009. DubaiSat-2 is now in works.
UAE also own 38% of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a private space venture which aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites.
There’s also an economic consideration, of course. Dubai and the UAE know oil doesn’t last forever, this is why they’re investing massive at home and abroad in everything from pharmaceuticals to real estate and – why not – space ventures. So, best of luck!