The United Arab Emirates took an accelerated approach to enter the satellite and space industry and position itself as a contender. The Gulf nation launched its first mobile telecommunications satellite, Thuraya-1, in 2000; established the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) in 2014; and has already put its first astronaut in space. Presently, with 10 birds in orbit, the country is launching a Mars Mission this July, and is committed to its 100-year plan to build a habitable settlement on Mars.
The passion to be part of humankind’s exploration of space ignited in the 1970s, when the nation’s leader at the time, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, met with the Apollo 17 astronauts. Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt returned from the moon and inspired a space vision for the UAE.
From then, the nation has looked to the stars to enable the betterment of humanity, and to help mitigate regional challenges such as climate and environmental issues.
The UAESA was created to facilitate the development of the UAE space sector, and has leveraged partnerships to transfer knowledge and build skillsets among the local workforce in the UAE. This, explains Dr. Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAESA, plays a key role in diversifying the national economy.
“More than 30 bilateral agreements with other national space agencies and institutions have been signed. When it comes to the U.S., we are very proud to have a strong relationship with NASA,” Al Ahbabi says.
In 2016, the UAESA and NASA signed a framework agreement for collaboration on including Human Space Flight in addition to other areas. Other agreements with the U.S. include a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and a Space Situational Awareness Agreement with the U.S. Strategic Command.
“There are also some very strong relations we enjoy with the U.S. satellite industry, such as our collaboration with Boeing to build the Thuraya satellites, Northrop Grumman, who we worked with to build Al Yah 3 for Yahsat satellite operator, and our work with Lockheed Martin on a space fundamentals training program for engineers,” Al Ahbabi adds.
UAE entities have also invested in the U.S. Space sector, the most notable of which is the equity stake in Virgin Galactic.
But the UAE’s partnerships do not exclude the Middle East. Collaboration with Arab countries is also part of UAESA’s efforts to foster scientific growth in the space sector. The Arab Space Cooperation Group of 14 Arab countries was launched in the UAE to enable this regional collaboration. Its objective is to consolidate the strengths and capabilities of the Arab world.
“We were delighted to announce a project as part of this collaboration, Satellite 813, which serves as a great addition to the UAE and the region’s list of achievements,” Al Ahbabi says, adding that the UAE has numerous reasons to be proud.
“We are proud of all of the satellites that we manufactured in a short period, as they bring about massive benefits through their operation. Another major milestone that we look forward to accomplishing in this historic year is launching the Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope Probe. We have made rapid progress in developing this project through collaborating with key local and global space entities. Hope will help us study the atmosphere and climate of Mars to understand its harsh conditions, enabling us to develop new technologies to combat resource scarcity and improve efficiency and sustainability of our planet,” Al Ahbabi says.
Aside from its focus on developing projects and satellites that serve a variety of purposes, the UAE recently issued a regulatory framework that includes a National Space Investment Promotion Plan, encouraging the growth of a national and regional commercial space industry.
“Our National Space Strategy aims to provide competitive and world-class space services, enhance our local human capabilities, manufacture advanced space technologies, launch inspiring space missions, forge effective partnerships, and develop a future-proof supportive legislative environment and infrastructure across the sector,” Al Ahbabi says. “Our National Space Investment Promotion Plan aims to make the UAE a major regional and global hub for space activities by building a competitive national economy.”
The UAE has also recently launched its space law, complementing its National Space Strategy, National Space Policy, and National Space Investment Promotion Plan.
Al Ahbabi says the country's ambition is “limitless,” and “we will always be in pursuit of exploring space and joining forces with like-minded countries, agencies, and companies, and to contribute to the benefit of humanity.” VS