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Gulf space agency is step nearer to reality

The first high-resolution imaging station in the Middle East will be operational in Abu Dhabi next summer, developers announce.

ABU DHABI // The Gulf Earth Observation Centre, envisaged as a step towards a regional space industry based in the UAE, will be completed by next summer. The news was announced by officials yesterday at the Global Space Technology Forum in the capital. The conference ends tomorrow.

"The station is under construction here in Industrial City of Abu Dhabi," said Riccardo Maggiora, the chief technology officer of 4C Controls, the US-based surveillance and security company behind the project. "We plan to have it operational by mid-2010." When operational, the centre will receive, analyse, utilise and distribute data and images beamed to it by satellites orbiting the Earth. It will be the first high-resolution imaging ground station in the Middle East. The data can be used for military, intelligence and environmental purposes and can be sold to other agencies abroad.

Officials at the company said they had received requests from several potential clients, but would not disclose further details. Construction was originally scheduled for completion in October this year, but was delayed. The plan to build the station was announced in February, and it was expected to cost US$30 million (Dh110m). However, a plan to launch four high-resolution satellites, also announced in February, remains at the fund-raising stage, Mr Maggiora said. The overall project was expected to cost $800 million.

The facility will also offer university-level courses in space engineering. Claudio Sansoe, an official at 4C Controls, said plans to train local workers in the industry were still on track. "We would also like to use the centre as a training and support centre for the UAE and people in the area. The idea of the space centre is to train people to use this kind of [data] - and to exploit the technology," he said. "The idea is to train local people because it's a need for us. If people don't know what to do with the images, we can't sell them."

Although the imaging centre is a private venture with governmental applications, officials see it as a step towards greater involvement in space activity. At the forum yesterday, the creation of a regional space agency was widely discussed. And on Sunday, the US space agency Nasa proposed taking a role in helping with Middle Eastern space ambitions, including helping Emirati students learn alongside US space scientists.

Michael O'Brien, the assistant administrator at Nasa's office of external affairs, is a delegate at the conference. He said he would be "meeting with officials in the area to talk about current co-operation that we have and the potential for expanding co-operation in some areas, perhaps in Earth observation and education. I will be signing a couple of agreements while in the region as well." He added: "The UAE particularly seems to be technologically proficient, with good relations with the US. We already have several agreements. So we at Nasa know that we have a good working relationship with the various technical operations in the UAE."

Mr O'Brien said Nasa would sign a deal with Oman's ministry of education that would allow it to take part in Globe, the agency's environment-monitoring education programme. Saudi Arabia will also sign a deal allowing it to participate in the Nasa Lunar Institute, an exchange programme for lunar research and scientists, this week. Nasa will also be collaborating with the Arab Youth Venture Foundation, a Ras al Khaimah-based non-profit organisation, to coach Emirati students at the Ames Research Centre in California.

Mr O'Brien said the agency was watching with interest the ongoing debate on whether a regional space agency to co-ordinate Middle Eastern space programmes was necessary. "It's an interesting idea but it's up to the regional governments to decide if a space agency in this region makes sense or not," he said. kshaheen@thenational.ae

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