THE MIDDLE EAST JOURNEYS TO THE STARS
"They agreed on developing a strategic approach that would focus on building mutual confidence and understanding of space systems."
On July 22, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), the UAE’S space agency, released an image of the full moon, captured in clear, high definition. The image was taken by Dubaisat-2, a satellite owned and operated by MBRSC, which was launched in 2013 to take high-quality images of the earth. Its pictures have already found plenty of uses—from urban planning and mapping to environmental monitoring.
While high-definition images of the moon are nothing new, the image release in July was the latest in a series of important milestones for the Middle East’s space efforts. The region has, over the past few years, made bold assertions that it wants to be part of global space exploration efforts, traditionally dominated by the USA, Russia, China and Europe.
There’s a good reason why so few countries have involved themselves in space exploration—cost. It’s incredibly expensive to get any sort of equipment out past the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, meaning that any government looking to take its space efforts seriously had better be prepared to sign plenty of cheques. But with the Gulf states now well established as economic powerhouses, governments in the region have decided that they should compete with the best of the world in the race to the stars as well.
So far, the UAE appears to be leading the regional charge. Dubai-sat2 was the region’s first real effort to build a homegrown space probe—the first Dubai-sat was actually built primarily by South Korea, with Emirati engineers learning from their counterparts about what it takes to build and launch a satellite. Dubai-sat2 saw the Emirates take on at least 50% of the work, with engineers from South Korea simply watching over their efforts. A third satellite, Khalifasat, will be built entirely in-house at the MBRSC, using only local engineers. If the planned launch in early 2018 goes ahead, it will be a testament to the country in its ability to upskill its workforce in such a small amount of time.
That said, the UAE isn’t planning on going it alone with its space-related efforts. As evidenced by the South Korea tie-up for Dubai-sat1, the country realises
that value can be gleaned from high-level partnerships. And earlier this year, the country announced that it had agreed with the USA to work towards space cooperation. Built on discussions in Washington, DC, the agreement covers policy and regulatory developments, space exploration and bi-lateral space science cooperation. The two countries are also looking to work on space security and the exchange of best practices together.
“They agreed on developing a strategic approach that would focus on building mutual confidence and understanding of space systems on which both countries rely for economic, environmental, security and social well-being,” said US spokesperson Jeff Rathke when the agreement was announced.
But the UAE’S space-related dreams go further than launching satellites and forg-
ing partnerships with big-league space explorers. Indeed, last summer, the country set out plans for its most ambitious space project yet—a mission to Mars.
Granted, this won’t be a manned mission—the country instead wants to send an unmanned probe to the Red Planet— however, it will be a lofty feat to pull off. The idea is to launch the probe from earth in July 2020. It will then take the craft seven months to complete the 60-millionkilometre journey, arriving just in time to coincide with the UAE’S 50th National Day. What’s interesting about the project, though, is that it’s being done simply as in the pursuit of scientific exploration, rather than a means to an end. Even with something like Dubaisat-2, there are tangible benefits to the information that the satellite sends back down to earth. But with a Mars mission, it’s difficult to imagine what bearing the data will have on anyone residing on this planet—instead, the information will mostly be used to satisfy scientific curiosity.
That said, the Mars Mission is also becoming a point of pride for the UAE. According to Omran Sharaf, the man leading the mission, there’s a lot of national confidence riding on its success.
“The reputation of the nation depends on this,” he told the Guardian in July.
“It’s the first time we go to Mars. I have to say, I think the team doesn’t sleep. But it’s something we have to do if we want to progress and move forward. If we can reach Mars, all challenges for the nation should be doable.”
The Mars Mission will also mark the first Middle Eastern effort to take a serious step into the rest of the solar system. But it’s not just about national pride—the team behind the mission wants to use it to inspire the local scientific community. For example, at the moment, there are precious few local experts with in-depth knowledge on Mars. The team hopes that, with an Arab probe going to Mars, more local scientists will want to specialise on the Red Planet.
The UAE’S efforts are also acting as a catalyst for other space-related projects from around the rest of the region. Saudi Arabia has already invested in satellites around the world, and Qatar appears to be taking a keen interest in space, too. Even though it will be a major milestone, the UAE’S Mars Mission is unlikely to be the Middle East’s final frontier.