AL FALAH // The final countdown has begun for the launch of Abu Dhabi's space programme.
As early as 3am on March 30, engineers at mission control, housed in a sleek, curved building east of the capital, will reach the next frontier by launching the Y1A satellite.
Once in orbit, the $600 million satellite will be the centrepiece of strategy to make Abu Dhabi an operations centre for the next generation of space technology.
"This is a great project for us at Yahsat, for Mubadala, for Abu Dhabi, and the country," said Jassim al Zaabi, the chief executive of Yahsat, the firm launching the Y1A. "This company is going to be 100 per cent operated by Yahsat. It's not a matter of just building and watching the satellites. The pride that we'll have as a team is being able to operate the system in-house."
Yahsat is owned by Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company controlled by the Abu Dhabi Government.
And while much attention is focused on the impending launch, it is only one of Abu Dhabi's space-industry ventures.
The emirate's Government has a majority stake in the Thuraya satellite phone company. Aabar Investments, also government-owned, holds a 32 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline, and the capital could serve as a spaceport if Virgin Galactic opts to build one in the region.
The Y1A is something very special. Weighing three tonnes and with a wingspan of 30 metres, it will be one of the largest geostationary satellites in orbit and provide government and military communications services.
A second satellite, the Y1B, will provide commercial telecommunication services such as broadband internet and high-definition television and will be launched in the first quarter of next year.
Inside mission control at Al Falah, about 50 kilometres outside the capital, preparations are being made for Yahsat's big day.
Engineers take their seats at the control centre's main operations room, in which three giant screens project an endless stream of flight and equipment data.
Each day until launch is filled with training with real-time computerised models of the satellite, while officials coordinate with engineers around the world on last-minute changes.
During liftoff, Yahsat employees will be able to watch the spacecraft enter orbit, but most of the heavy lifting will be done outside the country.
Last month, the Y1A satellite was shipped from its manufacturer's facility in Toulouse, France, to the Arianespace launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana.
Engineers at Arianespace will then outfit a rocket with the Y1A spacecraft, as well as the Intelsat New Dawn satellite, owned by the New Dawn Satellite Company of South Africa.
The day of the launch is not set in stone: although March 30 has been targeted, issues such as weather, mechanical failure and payload issues could delay liftoff.
Martin Gee, the chief technology officer for Yahsat, said about 15 per cent of all satellite launches at Arianespace take place on schedule. However, most do take place within a three-day launch window.
"It's better to be cautious, and [Arianespace] are very conservative in their launch dates because anything can change the launch date," Mr Gee said.
About 130 tonnes of liquid oxygen and 25 tonnes of liquid hydrogen are pumped into the rocket; they are the propellants that push the satellite out of Earth's atmosphere and into its planned orbit, some 35,786 km above sea level, where it will travel at a speed of 3.07 kilometres per second.
Nine days after launch, the satellite is expected to be in its set orbit after its flight is corrected through a series of four adjustments. When that occurs, the green light is given for Yahsat's team to take over control of the Y1A.
A satellite farm of six nine-metre antennas will then connect with the satellite and beam up the instructions to offer TV and internet service to more than 20 countries in Asia and Africa.
It is a lot of work, but the excitement of being at the forefront of Abu Dhabi's space ambitions keeps Mr Gee awake at night.
"This is the 20th spacecraft I've launched, and you'd think that after a while you'd get a bit complacent," Mr Gee said.
"But it's not. In fact, you remember every issue you've had on previous spacecraft and they all come back to remind you."