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Can MENA Do NewSpace?

The interest in the NewSpace movement has been gaining momentum all over the world and the MENA region is no exception. With talk of space ranging from enabling emerging nations to enhance their communications infrastructure to missions to Mars, this is a fertile region for NewSpace, with varying ambitions from country to country.

On the United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s homepage, there are three very significant words that sum up the country’s ambitions in space: Imagine the Impossible. It appears that this mentality is being duplicated across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as nations begin to believe that they can be a part of space as well. With NewSpace comes the notion of the democratization of space — a feeling that space is for all and that if there is a desire to become part of it, then this can become reality. The rise of private companies (and private money) in space has meant that developments are being pushed on quickly. Take SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s reusable rockets. This kind of development was laughed off 10 years ago, yet today, these rockets are actually in use. There is a new attitude toward space and how it may be used, and nations across the MENA region are eager to become involved.

It first might help to put some sort of a definition on NewSpace. This is not an easy thing to do as it involves so many different threads. NewSpace could have a plethora of meanings from the delivery of very basic connectivity to underserved areas right through to the development of a Moon Village and the prospect of using this to leap deeper into space. But whatever the meaning, this re-invigoration of the industry is inspiring nations in both developed and developing regions of the world to look at space differently. NewSpace means access to space. It’s not just for the few, but for the many. This shift in the way space and participation in space is perceived is the seed for the growth of the NewSpace industry in MENA.

Smallsats as a Catalyst

Small satellites and their increasing capabilities are catalysts for the NewSpace movement in MENA, particularly in Africa. Small satellites such as CubeSats provide a much cheaper alternative to large satellite programs and therefore make space missions a more tangible prospect for developing countries. Despite their size, their capabilities are wide ranging and comprehensive and they can deliver services and applications that are equal to their larger counterparts.

“In the last two months alone, we have seen at least 3 CubeSats launched by African countries — two from South Africa and one from Ghana,” says Amal Khatri, executive director of the space program at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). “There has also been interest from several other African countries to work with South Africa to build CubeSat capabilities, as this is a more cost-effective entry into the space domain.”

2017 has become a year of firsts for the African nations in space as the amount of national space agencies grows across the continent. South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia all have national space agencies, and there are other African nations calling for the initiation of space agencies such as Sudan.

As previously mentioned, Ghana launched its first satellite in July, on board a SpaceX rocket. The satellite itself was assembled and tested by three students at All Nations University. Although GhanaSat 1 was developed and built with little initial support from the government, the university is now coordinating with it on the development a second satellite, GhanaSat 2. The success of the program has been largely down to Ghana’s partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which has provided most of the training and support to develop the satellite.

The Ethiopian Space Agency made an announcement in January this year that confirmed the country is developing a medium-sized space launch vehicle and also capabilities that will enable it to build indigenous satellites. The Ministry of Science and Technology said that the maiden launch of the vehicle will be expected in the next three years. As a country, Ethiopia will focus its efforts on satellites that will enable applications such as disaster management, national security and land management.

SANSA has been earmarked as one to watch in terms of the NewSpace angle. The Agency is currently focused on creating complementary technologies that will balance the long term Return on Investment (ROI) and designing space missions that will make good business sense. “NewSpace technology has many definitions,” says Khatri. “Currently we are investing in smaller satellites including CubeSat development. These technologies are currently in the research phase which will eventually result in full operational satellites over the next two years. The long-term intention would be to use existing bus designs to implement new missions that can be deployed quickly, efficiently at minimal costs.”

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

Creating a self-sufficient space infrastructure is an important factor for MENA nations. The ability to develop, manufacture, launch and operate spacecraft and launch vehicles in-country is a huge advantage and a space program brings with it vital benefits such as socio-economic development and national security.

Countries in MENA that wish to become involved in space are building up their space industries from a very low base. Therefore, knowledge transfer from other space nations is essential in moving forward with any national space effort. Learning from other nations puts African and Middle Eastern companies and agencies in an advanced position, as James Barrington-Brown, CEO of NewSpace Systems explains. “Africa has the opportunity to learn from history and leapfrog the previous learning curve developed over time in Europe,” he says. “It is also noted that India, China and Russia have not fully embraced the NewSpace movement yet, and will likely miss out on the African market as a result. Africans are both innovative and entrepreneurial, so I can foresee many NewSpace technologies and application ideas coming out of Africa in the next decade.” As we have already seen, Ghana’s All Nations University was supported through an agreement with JAXA. Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) and other agreements play a critical part in the development of emerging space nations that want to become part of the NewSpace phenomenon.

SANSA has initiated MoUs with all of the key space nations in order to further its development and that of its staff. “We are currently developing specific engagements with these entities in space cooperation. The key intention is on leveraging existing skills within South Africa and other BRICS nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] and cooperating in utilizing space for peaceful purposes,” says Khatri. “South Africa has highly skilled scientists who are developing applications which deal with current social economic challenges. There are several other programs that are currently being planned with particular focus on the broader needs of Africa.”

Diversifying Economies Through Space

Another very important part of the NewSpace movement is that it is becoming a means by which nations across MENA can diversify their economies. An ideal example of a nation that is truly turning to space as an alternative to its traditional means of economic growth is the United Arab Emirates. As the country moves away from its reliance upon petrodollars, this is leading it toward emerging NewSpace industries such as asteroid mining.

“Many countries in the Middle East, including Kuwait, have 100-year plans,” explains Tom James, senior partner at Navitas Resources and co-founder of the Space Economy Institute. “They know they must invest in new economies. In the Middle East they have historically been a key supplier of energy for the past 100 years and they are already investing in renewables for future energy. Being part of literally fueling the future is critical as they move their economies to digital and higher tech sustainable economies. In the future, hydrocarbon energy like oil and gas may be not as important for the world.”

In terms of NewSpace, James sees much going on in the Middle East region with countries looking at developing space ports and attracting start-ups and technology firms to establish research and development centers. “Launching spacecraft from parts of the Middle East makes a lot of sense,” says James. “They have a lot of space and they are close to the equator. Launching rockets from the equator makes good sense in terms of using less fuel to get into an orbit.”

James adds that there is also the added benefit of sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East looking to invest in the NewSpace area, as well as low tax or zero tax regimes and subsidies to attract new emerging space start-up technology firms. It all bodes well for a growing opportunity.

Creating an Indigenous Workforce

The creation of an indigenous space workforce is integral to the establishment of any space program and therefore knowledge transfer from other, more experienced space nations is an invaluable means of developing the skillsets of talented, indigenous scientists and engineers. The UAE Space Agency and its partner organization, the Mohamed Bin Rashid Space Centre, are heavily focused on knowledge transfer and have MoUs in place that allow the collaboration with other countries such as United States, United Kingdom, Russia, India, as well as other entities such as the International Astronautical Federation. Through cooperation and the exchange of engineers, the UAE is building an impressive space agency of its own and its level of expertise and ambition is due to take the country to Mars in 2021 on the first Arab-Islamic mission of its kind.

Knowledge transfer and a focus upon education is also just as important in Africa. “There is a thirst for technology know-how transfer and human capital development to reduce the time that Africans are dependent on the incumbent suppliers,” says Barrington-Brown.

Khatri also stresses the important of ingraining space into young people at an early stage: “SANSA will take a holistic approach, which will integrate new learning disciplines at universities with the intention of creating new curriculum in space science and engineering. It is critical to ensure human capital development starts at schools then extends into development of engineers who will be responsible to implement the National Space Program.”

Complementary or Competition?

NewSpace and its opportunities are very obvious, as we have seen throughout this article, but is this a threat to established satellite operators in MENA? UAE-based satellite operator Yahsat has been established since 2007 to meet the growing demand in the region for government, commercial and consumer satellite communications. But does Yahsat see NewSpace as a threat? Do they fear being left behind?

Masood M. Sharif Mahmood, Yahsat’s CEO, believes that this is most certainly not the case. “Yahsat doesn't see NewSpace as a threat,” he says. “All major satellite operators are closely following the NewSpace developments and open to initiatives to explore the opportunity. Going forward, the interest and investment will only increase as more use cases are discovered and technology is proven.”

Ghana team with CubeSat. All Nations University

Mahmood sees the NewSpace phenomenon leading to volume increase and cost decrease, where it can create new applications that will dramatically increase satellite launches, reducing launch costs and directly helping to improve the business case for Yahsat’s services. He sees new revenue streams with the massification of space travel and eventual extra-planetary human settlements that will raise the need for a whole host of additional services which satellite operators are best geared to serve, thus opening new revenue streams for Yahsat. Finally, Mahmood envisages better cooperation between satellite operators and adjacent industries such as telecommunications, plus extraneous sectors such as manufacturing and biotechnology. This is fundamentally good for both industry sectors and the end consumers, as it accelerates innovation and improves services.

Can MENA do NewSpace?

MENA is already doing NewSpace — and this is just the beginning. Barrington-Brown sees the future for NewSpace in MENA as literally huge: “Massive growth — double digit for many years,” he says. The fact that MENA countries can bypass the learning curve that others have had to go through puts the region in a unique position to catalyze their NewSpace ambitions. Through forging relationships with established space nations and also by collaborating and sharing experience with emerging ones, MENA countries can find the best way forward. To build indigenous capability to launch space programs opens up massive opportunities for nations that may never have thought were previously open to them. There are some that are more developed than others and with different ambitions in space. However, this is a region to watch, with many emerging nations keen to grab hold of the NewSpace opportunity. VS