ABU DHABI // The UAE is positioning itself to lead the Middle East into space, lifted by investment in technology, expertise and facilities, experts say. At the focal point of the new push is the Dh2.9 billion (US$800 million) Gulf space centre and satellite programme based in Abu Dhabi, which will be the largest in the Middle East and North Africa region. And officials hope the end result will be increased collaboration and even a pan-Arab space agency.
Omar Emam, a space technology adviser at the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, said only a few countries in the region had even launched satellites. "The difficulty is that projects such as these are very expensive, and many countries in the Middle East and Africa do not have the money to fund these kind of things," Mr Emam said. "That is why a pan-Arab or Middle East and African space agency is so important. It would allow countries which take part to share the cost and the rewards.
"It is about pooling resources. If they do not get involved, they run the risk of being left behind." He added that the UAE was well positioned to become a focal point of space exploration because of its background in commercial satellite projects by companies such as Thuraya and Yahsat. Plans to build a spaceport in the capital - fuelled by a $280bn deal with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic - will also give the UAE's space aspirations a boost, experts say. The 32 per cent stake in the company means Abu Dhabi will have exclusive rights to offering space tourism flights.
With the UAE's first government-owned satellite, DubaiSat-1, scheduled for launch last night, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), which oversaw its creation, is already working on building two more. "The launch of DubaiSat-1 will pave the way for further space projects that highlight the UAE's thought-leadership role in space technology research," said Mohammed al Ghanim, board chairman of EIAST, which was established by the Dubai Government in 2006.
DubaiSat-1 is a remote sensing satellite that will be used to create a three-dimensional map of the region with a host of applications from monitoring climate change to urban planning and disaster relief. All these efforts have attracted worldwide interest. The UAE will hold the second annual Global Space Technology Forum in December in Abu Dhabi, an event that organisers promise will attract representatives from more than 20 countries, including the US space agency, Nasa.
Virgin Galactic, whose Dubai facility is the only accredited space office outside of the company headquarters in New Mexico, signed a deal with Aabar Investments this week that set Abu Dhabi on course to create the world's second commercial spaceport. Similar plans by a rival space tourism firm, Space Adventures, for Ras al Khaimah were announced in 2006, but the project recently stalled. The DubaiSat-1 project also represents a commitment to building a knowledge base for further efforts, officials said.
Because UAE scientists had no experience in designing and building satellites, they agreed a deal with the South Korean firm Satrec to design and build DubaiSat-1 - but, more importantly, to teach Emirati scientists the skills needed to create future probes. "We are investing in our natural human resources in sectors that are the cutting edge of technology," Mr al Ghanim said. "We are committed to positioning the UAE as a science and technology hub and establishing international collaborations and joint projects with industry and research organisations," he said.
Although Emirati technicians were responsible for only 30 per cent of the work on DubaiSat-1, DubaiSat-2 and 3, slated to be finished by 2020, will be developed by Emiratis. This effort to train and harness the country's young minds marks a change in state strategy, experts say. "UAE organisations, like Etisalat and Thuraya, have had a limited space satellite exploration programme since the early 1990s," said Biju Saith of Streamline Marketing Group, which is organising the Global Space Technology Forum.
"Traditionally, this has relied on hiring foreign consultants, but now the focus is on projects that include the UAE sending up satellites that have been designed and built here," he said. "This is an example of the shift in momentum now turning the focus onto home-grown projects." One of the most ambitious of the new generation of home-grown space projects is the Gulf space centre, known as the 4C GEOC (Gulf Earth Observation Centre), which alone is expected to cost $30 million and fill 10,000 square metres.
Two more ground stations are in the works, one each in Africa and elsewhere in Asia, to monitor and interpret satellite images and data from across the region. Both military and civilian applications are foreseen. Initially the facility will receive and distribute data from satellites already in space that are managed by the Italian firm Telespazio and the Italian Space Agency. The 4C GEOC project will be able to produce its own images after it launches its first two satellites, each costing almost $200 million, by the end of 2012.
Two more will be launched in 2013. The images beamed back to 4C GEOC will be created by radar photography, allowing high-definition pictures to be produced day and night, in all weather. Construction of the centre will begin in September; it is expected to be operational within six months, said Anastasios Angeloglou, chief executive of 4C Controls, the US security firm that launched the venture with the Abu Dhabi investment company Hydra Trading.
The centre is also planning to create a space academy, with classrooms and laboratories providing education up to university level on telecommunications, electronics and space engineering. Mr Saith said the level of investment in the space technology sector would act as a catalyst and drive further projects. "The aim is to develop a core knowledge base in the UAE, which would act as a regional centre of expertise offering assistance to countries looking to develop a presence in the space technology field," he said.
Ahmed al Mansoori, the director general of EIAST, has already led calls for a central authority to unite government, private companies and academic institutions to develop space technology. "It's time to design and set up the mechanism for a nationwide programme for research in all fields, and the immediate aim is for such an authority to define a space policy," he said at last year's Global Space Technology Forum.
"We need a regulatory authority not just to put the policies there but to co-ordinate everything - a special monitoring body to follow progress." That government space programme may be the foundation of a pan-Arab space agency, said Salem al Marri, one of the architects of the DubaiSat-1 project. "A federal space agency representing the whole country is something that we are aiming for," he said.
"That would be the natural next step towards a pan-Arab programme and would allow the UAE to speak with one voice about its ambitions and plans for space research. "I think it is a feasible and worthwhile project, but for now, it is still some way off." email@example.com