The UAE's space race

09 February 2015

The UAE Space Agency is planning to launch the Arab world’s first unmanned mission to Mars in 2021

In July 2014, Abu Dhabi announced the establishment of the UAE Space Agency. It is tasked with launching the Arab world’s first unmanned mission to Mars in 2021, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s formation.

This ambitious plan to reach outer space follows a decade and a half of success in launching satellites into orbit.

In October 2000, local telecoms company Thuraya launched the UAE’s first communications satellite - Thuraya-1 - from the Pacific Ocean. It has since been joined by others operated by the firm and by the local Al-Yah Satellite Communications Company.

Space aspirations

More recently, in July 2009, a rocket blasted off from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. Its payload contained DubaiSat-1, the first remote sensing satellite to be fully owned by a UAE entity. As an observation satellite, DubaiSat-1 put the UAE in an international club with greater space aspirations than mere telecoms.

Cost of recent mars missions 
Launch dateMissionOrganisationCost ($m)
Jun-03Beagle 2ESA80
2003Spirit and Opportunity RoversNasa820
Mar-06Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterNasa720
Nov-11Curiosity RoverNasa2,500
Nov-13Mangalyaan OrbiterISRO74
Nov-13Maven OrbiterNasa671
ESA=European Space Agency; ISRO=Indian Space Research Organisation. Source: MEED

The organisation behind it, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST), says the launch was “one of the key steps in enabling the country to become a regional leader in the field of advanced scientific development”. EIAST was established in 2006 to kick-start the UAE’s space programme, and will develop the Mars mission with funding from the UAE Space Agency.

DubaiSat-1’s images have supported international aid relief efforts for disasters such as the Chilean mine collapse in 2010, the 2011 Japanese tsunami and flooding in Pakistan.

In 2013, EIAST launched a second satellite, DubaiSat-2. Like its forerunner, it is intended to provide electro-optical imaging data of the UAE and other countries for commercial use.
In 2017, KhalifaSat (originally known as DubaiSat-3) will be sent up. It will offer further imaging capabilities and will have been developed completely by Emirati engineers. The first two DubaiSats were developed with South Korea’s Satrec Initiative, but EIAST says local technicians were “involved in almost 70 per cent of the total design and build of DubaiSat-2, with some tasks wholly performed by the Emirati team based in Dubai and South Korea”.

Local capabilities

Developing local capabilities is important to the legitimacy of the UAE’s space programme. EIAST’s mission statement is “to enable the UAE to effectively create, use and exploit space science technologies and applications”, and one of its strategic objectives is “empowering Emiratis in outer-space scientific techniques and applications, and supporting the development of their key skills”.

As well as Emirati talent, the programme hopes to nurture local manufacturing. Salem al-Marri, EIAST’s assistant director-general for scientific and technical affairs, told local media in October: “In about 18 months or so, we hope to have the facilities in place in Dubai to become self-sufficient in building our own satellites. We hope to have a development laboratory and a testing facility, with a thermal chamber to test satellites, up and running soon.” Developing manufacturing capabilities in this area will provide a boost to the local economy and help diversify it beyond oil and gas.

UAE news agency WAM estimates the global space sector to be worth about $300bn, with annual growth of 8 per cent. According to the OECD Space Forum, the industry’s global revenues in 2013 totalled $256.2bn. Of that, 33 per cent came from the space manufacturing supply chain; satellite operators earned 8.4 per cent; and 58 per cent was generated by consumer services, “including actors who rely on some satellite capacity for part of their revenues, such as direct-to-home satellite television services providers”.

Increased spending

WAM says the UAE’s investment in space technologies has so far been worth more than AED20bn ($5.4bn). The launch of a mission to Mars is likely to increase this significantly. The UAE Space Agency has so far been unclear so far on whether it will land its probe on the red planet or merely put a satellite into orbit around it; this could determine the cost of the venture.

In September last year, Nasa’s Maven orbiter got to Mars at a cost of $671m. But India reached the same stage with its Mangalyaan satellite days later for only $74m. India’s satellite weighs only 15 kilograms, compared with the 1.35 tonnes of the Nasa project. When the UK sent its Beagle 2 lander to Mars in 2003, it cost $80m. However, the Beagle mission failed to broadcast any data and a subsequent enquiry concluded inadequate funding was partly to blame. In August 2012, Nasa’s Curiosity Rover landed successfully on the red planet at a total cost of $2.5bn.

Key fact

The UAE’s investment in space technologies has so far been worth more than $5.4bn

Source: WAM

Announcing the UAE Space Agency last year, the country’s President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan said: “We aim for the UAE to be among the top countries in aerospace by 2021. We have a great belief in the talents of our young people and the strongest determination, the greatest ambitions and a clear plan to reach our targets.” Six years is an ambitious timeline, however.

Broad responsibilities

The agency’s objectives are fivefold: to organise, support and guide the space sector to serve the interests of the UAE; to encourage the development and use of space science and technology within the country; to establish international partnerships to enhance the UAE’s role and status in the sector; to help diversify the economy; and to raise awareness of the importance of the space sector and develop human resources.

Many are sceptical about the programme, although the rapidity with which the UAE has established other industries sets a promising precedent. Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at the UK’s StrategicAero Research, says it is hard to predict potential at such an early stage. “That said, the UAE is the world’s aviation leader and it makes sense that it wants to broaden its aviation horizon and capability, and moving into cheap and sustainable space flight is a natural extension of that,” he says.

More than seven months after its inauguration, the agency has little to show for itself apart from social media pages. Its published phone number reaches a dead line, and its public relations agency was unable to provide a representative to comment for this article. However, a recent parliamentary report confirms the government has been firming up the structure of the agency, and at the start of 2015, a delegation visited European space industry representatives, including the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the Italian Space Agency and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales of France.

World stage

In a press release following the visit, UAE Space Agency chairman Khalifa Mohammed al-Rumaithi said: “We examined advanced, pioneering projects and briefed stakeholders on our future plans for established strategic partnerships in aerospace affairs. We look forward to launching the UAE onto the world stage through the various aerospace committees affiliated with the UN.”

Other UAE entities have also shown interest in the sector. In 2009, government investment vehicle Aabar Investments bought a 31.8 per cent stake in the UK’s Virgin Galactic, later raising this to 37.8 per cent. Virgin Galactic, run by entrepreneur Richard Branson, plans to launch space flights for tourists. For $250,000, passengers will travel in a light craft far enough into space to induce weightlessness.

The venture has run into difficulties, however. On 31 October 2014, its SpaceShipTwo broke up during testing over the US’ Mojave desert, killing its pilot; Virgin Galactic is now building a new craft. The accident could not have been more ill-timed, coming just months after the UAE Space Agency’s launch.

Virgin Galactic

A spokesperson for Virgin Galactic tells MEED that Aabar Investments’ shareholding provides the project with a close regional tie: “We are engaged with and supportive of the local aerospace community generally, and are also delighted to have a number of future astronaut customers from the UAE.” Aabar Investments was quoted after the accident as declining to reaffirm its commitment to the venture.

In February, before the crash, Branson had told local media he could see Virgin Galactic building a space port in the UAE within two years. However, the firm’s spokesperson plays down these plans: “Our first priority is to get operations started at Spaceport America and make a success of that.” Once this is done, Virgin Galactic will consider the commercial case for operational campaigns elsewhere, dependent on obtaining the right licences, but the US will remain its base of operations.

“We are also supporting our partner, Aabar Investments, in its ambitions to establish a centre for commercial space activities in Abu Dhabi,” says the spokesperson. “If and when we do move to other countries, our first location could therefore be Abu Dhabi. However, we haven’t yet decided to apply for any of the necessary regulatory licences, and there is no guarantee we would be successful if we did.”

Other initiatives

Other space initiatives have fallen by the wayside. Another firm offering to send paying customers into space, Space Adventures, announced plans in 2006 to build a space port in Ras al-Khaimah. The emirate’s government was to front $30m towards the $265m facility, with the remainder provided by private investors. However, little progress was made, and in 2007, the project was reportedly cancelled.

Financing could yet prove to be the undoing of the UAE space programme. When the agency was announced in July, oil prices were at $114 a barrel. Since then they have plunged to below $50 a barrel.

According to the US’ Moody’s Investors Service, if oil prices average $55 a barrel, on stable production volumes, Abu Dhabi’s government revenues will drop by 45 per cent in 2015, leading to a fiscal deficit equivalent to 1.1 per cent of GDP. Under such circumstances, even a low-budget, high-risk mission to Mars might seem like an astronomical expense.

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