With astronauts space-bound in under a year and a Mars initiative spanning 100 years, the UAE space programme is staggering in scale and pace. Vijaya Cherian meets with UAE Space Agency’s Director General HE Dr Mohamed Nasser Al Ahbabi and his team to understand how the country’s space ambitions will help build a sustainable future.
The last year has seen the UAE ramp up its space efforts to a pace that has the world offering grudging respect. We live in the UAE at a time when history is in the making, with the country’s leadership announcing a string of ambitious space initiatives that will serve as the bedrock for a sustainable future for the nation’s youth while also strategically placing it in a very elite league of countries that have meaningful space programmes.
The UAE Space Agency, the brainchild of Director General HE Dr Mohamed Nasser Al Ahbabi, is heading this initiative. To ensure the agency remains agile and focused on its core objectives, it has delegated research and science projects to the national universities, while engaging with existing national space partners like the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and Yahsat for bigger satellite projects.
Dr Ahbabi, who has a doctorate degree in Laser and Fibre Optics from the UK, was involved in the UAE’s satellite initiative long before he secured approval to start the Space Agency. But he says his passion for space is rooted in Arab culture and dates back to before his skills brought him to the drawing board.
We knew that we wanted to be a dynamic organisation that could move quickly with our ideas and we wanted to be like Space 2.0 – very active in the commercial aspect of space” HE Dr Mohamed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director General, UAE Space Agency
“In Arab society, falconry is a tradition and often, after a day of hunting, it is customary to spend our nights sleeping out in the desert,” he explains. “Typically, in the desert, we tend to spend hours gazing at the sky and identifying the stars our grandparents told us about. The older people in our society never went to school, but they knew each star by name and their direction, and they have passed that on orally from one generation to the next.
“Long before GPS came into existence, we had people who excelled in science and astronomy in the Arab world. This is because there was another big need as well. When we pray, we face the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and this was always deduced by looking at the stars, so this is something we have all learnt as children.”
The real turning point for Dr Ahbabi came when he returned in 2005 from the UK to the UAE after completing his PhD.
“I was asked to be part of the new Yahsat project back in 2005. I learned a lot through that programme. I was hooked to space by then, and on interacting with the international space community, I realised that we needed to be part of a strategic space programme that was not just a project. I did a lot of research and went back to our leadership with a proposal supported by evidence and documentation. They told me to establish it.” Having worked on start-up projects for the government before, Dr Ahbabi had a distinct advantage when it came to setting up the UAE Space Agency in 2014.
“The leadership gave us the opportunity to plan the agency the way we wanted to do it. So we looked at various international models to see what would suit us best. We knew that we wanted to be a dynamic organisation that could move quickly with our ideas, and we wanted to be like Space 2.0 – very active in the commercial aspect of space. With the private sector entering the space segment things had started to move very fast while governments got more involved in regulation, facilitation and support. We wanted to ensure that our organisation had its eyes set on the future. That is why we looked at futuristic projects like manned space missions and space tourism. We wanted to create a clear road map. With space, you need to have a very clear plan because it is a very costly exercise.”
So far, the UAE has invested $6bn in various space activities. In keeping with its objective of ensuring efficient implementation of projects to attain the goals set by the UAE government, the agency decided not to establish its own centres or bring everyone under its umbrella. “That would have slowed us down. Instead, we decided to collaborate with existing organisations in the private and public sector, and engage their services based on their expertise. In the commercial space, for instance, we try to support our companies towards buying and operating satellites. When it comes to research and development, we work with local universities, where we provide the funds for their space-related academic programmes. Universities do not report to us; they operate autonomously. This way, we found we could build a more sustainable ecosystem and fulfil the mandate of our leadership. We just orchestrate the whole thing, if you like.” The UAE Space Agency also engages with bigger entities like MBRSC and Yahsat, though they were established much earlier.
“One thing that we are really proud of is the fact that Tawazun Precision Industries (TPI), a local company, is manufacturing around 65 components for this spacecraft in the UAE. We pre-qualified them in coordination with MBRSC and now they are producing these components” Khaled Ali Al Hashmi, Director of Space Missions, UAE Space Agency
“MBRSC is funded by the Dubai government. They were established in 2006 and have a lot of engineers and the right skills. When we have a project in hand, we look at which organisation is the most capable of executing it and contract them to do it.” The UAE already has seven large satellites in space. Yahsat has three of its own and two from its new acquisition, Thuraya. MBRSC has two satellites and is gearing up for the launch of a third – KhalifaSat – later this year. Perhaps the agency’s most ambitious project to date is its Mars mission, which has various elements to it. The first is the Hope Mars Probe, a spacecraft that will be launched in 2020 and orbit Mars in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. The second is an ambitious 100-year programme to build a city on Mars.
The third is the establishment of the Mars Scientific City, a $136m project that will simulate life on Mars. Spread over a space of 1.9 million square feet, this city in Dubai will be the largest space-simulation city ever built and will provide a viable and realistic model of living on the surface of Mars. The project encompasses laboratories for food, energy and water, as well as agricultural testing and studies of food security in the future. The first phase will be ready by 2020.
At present, the focus is on the Hope Mars Probe, which is being launched to study the red planet better in conjunction with other international scientific communities, and share information about its temperature and climate.
As Dr Ahbabi pointed out earlier, the agency looks locally to see who has the expertise to take up one of its projects.
“For this Mars mission, we felt that MBRSC had the skills and the expertise, so we signed a contract with them to do it. Of course, because we are small, I wanted my engineers to learn as well, so they have also gone to MBRSC to work on it.”
The person helping with the implementation of this project, or “doing the cooking in the kitchen” as he humorously puts it, is aerospace engineer Khaled Ali Al Hashmi, Director of Space Missions at the UAE Space Agency.
“The Hope project, or Amal, is the first flagship programme for the UAE. This satellite is a 24/7 probe covering the upper and lower atmosphere of Mars; it adds value to other missions that are studying different elements of the Martian atmosphere. We have partnered with the universities of Colorado, Berkeley and Arizona to contribute the sensors for the probe. Three sensors – infrared, ultraviolet and cameras – make up the main instrumentation. We are also collaborating with NASA to track the satellite,” says Al Hashmi.
“The UAE Space Agency has built ties with more than 25 national and international stakeholders and partners across the world since 2014” Nasser A. Al Hammadi, Head of Space Policy
He points out that roughly 60 UAE nationals are involved in this project, with 50 engineers from MBRSC and the rest from the UAE Space Agency.
“One thing that we are really proud of is the fact that Tawazun Precision Industries (TPI), a local company, is manufacturing around 65 components for this spacecraft in the UAE. We prequalified them in coordination with MBRSC and now they are producing these components. We will do the assembly, integration and testing of the spacecraft. In 2019, we will have completed the full environmental testing of the spacecraft. Mitsubishi in Japan will help launch the vehicle.” Dr Ahbabi is also pleased that “the project is on budget, within the designated weight and on time”, which he says is “not typical for a space project”.
“All of us are working with certain margins in terms of weight – both the company that is designing the rocket to launch our probe and us. If it’s less than the weight planned, it immediately throws open so many options. You can inject more fuel to increase the lifespan of the spacecraft or consider ride sharing for one of your smaller satellites. It’s very exciting to think of all the things you can do with your options,” says Dr Ahbabi, the excitement vivid in his eyes.
Once the probe reaches orbit, a team of university students and the Emirates Mars Mission team will analyse the data received from the Al Amal spacecraft. The probe, however, is only a stepping stone to the UAE’s more ambitious dream to set up habitation on Mars in 100 years.
“It may seem hugely ambitious, but our leadership has always made it clear that if you are going to set a goal, set it as high as you can so everybody will compete and there is something worth aspiring to. Mars is not the destination for us. It is the journey. It is what we learn and achieve in the process, how many people we educate, the technology we start developing within the country, the soft power this project will contribute, the cooperation you build with international powers and how much research you would have conducted, and the intellectual property and the patents you would have created in the process.
“That’s why this journey is so important,” he explains. “It’s about building knowledge, confidence, international cooperation, respect and credit for our country through the space agency.”
The results are already showing, he says. In late April, students from Abu Dhabi University (ADU), American University of Ras Al Khaimah (AURAK), Khalifa University (KU), University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) and New York University – Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) participated at the Global Aerospace Summit 2018 in Abu Dhabi, where they showcased a number of aerospace projects under development at their institutions. Presently, five or six different CubeSat or CanSat projects are under development in universities.
“Young people who joined the project and knew nothing about space are now leading and participating in these big conferences and discussing their science objectives. You can’t buy that knowledge. You have to go through a long-term project like this to build that. We would have also gained the respect of the international community. When they see someone from this region at this difficult time coming up with these ideas like a torch in the darkness, they will join you,” Dr Ahbabi says.
And the proof is in the international deals that the agency has recently inked with the most influential space players. Nasser A. Al Hammadi, Head of Space Policy, who is responsible for developing those relations both regionally and internationally, says the agency “has built ties with more than 25 national and international stakeholders and partners across the world since 2014”.
Among its many deals, the UAE Space Agency has recently signed separate letters of intent with both Russia and NASA for the UAE Astronaut Programme. The country completed a massive hunt for its first four astronauts earlier this year, and of the 4,000 applicants, nine have qualified for the final round. This month, the agency is likely to announce the chosen four and the first astronaut among them, who will represent the country.
“We have a Letter of Intent with Russia to take the first Emirati astronaut to space. Our first astronaut is scheduled to reach the International Space Station in April 2019. We have also signed an agreement with NASA that covers cooperation in the peaceful exploration of outer space and our astronaut programme. This agreement also allows us to share the space NASA has on ISS. We work with all nations across the world. We have picked our advisory committee as well from different countries, because they bring different levels of expertise and perspectives,” explains Dr Ahbabi.
The UAE Space Agency is simultaneously working with UAE universities to ensure that students remain an integral part of its space initiatives. The agency has encouraged individual contributions and collaborations between universities while also empowering them to get involved in manufacturing some of the components.
“We established a centre at Masdar and another at Sharjah University, and we try to work within their mandates as academic institutions. If we want to create a small satellite of less than 50kg, we approach Masdar. For a satellite that is between 50kg and 200kg, we approach the UAE University in Al Ain. A bigger satellite of 500kg or more will be handled by MBRSC. When it comes to astrophysics or science, Sharjah comes into the picture.”
In response to the question of whether universities will collaborate to produce a better product, Dr Ahbabi says this is controlled through funding: “When we put out a proposal, we always say that the chance of them winning the opportunity to do it is greater if they collaborate.”
As a result, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, part of the Khalifa Institute of Science and Technology, and AURAK are presently working on developing a 3U CubeSat called MeznSat to study the Earth’s atmosphere. The satellite is to be launched in late 2019 from a site in Japan, in coordination with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Once in orbit, the students will monitor, process and analyse the data from a ground station in the UAE. The processes and expertise involved in monitoring the atmosphere are similar to those employed during conventional Earth observation programmes.
“This CubeSat will measure the abundance and distribution of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It will help them to study the concentration of nutrients in the coastal waters of the Arabian Gulf, and make more accurate predictions of algal blooms,” explains Dr Ahbabi.
KU is working with NYUAD on another satellite project.
The UAE also recently signed the Paris Declaration to address climate change, so these satellites are being used for Earth observation, climate change and similar scientific initiatives.
A larger 150kg satellite is also being developed between the UAE and France as part of the Paris Declaration, says Al Hashmi. “This is a hyperspectral satellite for remote sensing and is the first in the region. It will help us to understand the terrain and the vegetation in this country better.”
The agency is also working closely with an organisation to learn how to analyse the data from the various satellites it is launching into space, and ensuring universities are involved in this exercise.
“We are building the capabilities at local universities at various levels,” explains Al Hashmi. “We are also funding local universities to build certain technologies like navigation controls, computers, GPS receivers and so on. We are building those capabilities so that in the future, the main components of the satellite can be built in the UAE.”
This collaboration with various entities within the country has helped the nation develop its space activities exponentially. As a result, regional and international agencies as well as scientific organisations are looking to the UAE to collaborate and partner on various initiatives.
For instance, as Bahrain looks to begin its own space initiative, it has invited the agency to help it identify a few engineers to helm it. In addition, Nasser A. Al Hammadi, Head of Space Policy, points out that HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has asked the agency to step up collaboration within the Arab region.
“His Highness called for us to get closer to our neighbours and share our expertise so that everyone can benefit from it.”
Although space activities are still minimal within the GCC, Algeria already has a space agency and Morocco has remote earth sensing capabilities.
“Everyone has different levels of expertise, and we are trying to bring all of them together so we can tap into each other’s expertise and benefit mutually,” explains Al Hammadi.
In the meantime, the UAE is also drumming up support internationally and has most recently entered into a number of partnerships within Latin America.
“We have recently established partnerships in Argentina and Brazil as well. The programme we have today is very ambitious and aggressive. Our goal is to connect with everybody on a regional and international level,” Al Hammadi adds.
One aspect that remains crucial is space regulation, and the UAE is also in the process of finalising its national space law.
“Our national space law will discuss the regulation of human space flights, space mining and space tourism. It will be a state-of-the-art space law that will come out before the end of the year,” says Dr Ahbabi. He is clear about one thing.
“If you want sustainability, you have to get everyone involved and, more importantly, you must get the private sector to step in. This is why we are trying to establish local centres while also working with a number of countries like Russia and Kazakhstan for space investment.”
So far, 500 UAE nationals are involved in the country’s space programmes, 50 at the UAE Space Agency. “I call them the dream team. We want the UAE Space Agency to remain a government entity while operating with the agility of a private entity. We are also here to ensure that our space initiatives create a sustainable knowledge-based economy and simultaneously help raise the profile of the UAE internationally. There is no better project than this to do that.”