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UAE's reach widens on land and from space

Spurred on by the success of DubaiSat-1, the agency that controls the satellite is working on a second, as well as more global tie-ups.

DUBAI // With each pass over Japan’s ravaged landscape in the hours and days after March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, DubaiSat-1 collected images of large swaths of toppled towns, scanned the dramatically altered coastline and zeroed in on the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant as it suffered a nuclear meltdown.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency requested the images directly from the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (Eiast), which controls the satellite, as it struggled to piece together a clearer image of the disaster’s impact and a recovery plan.

Since the launch of DubaiSat-1 from Kazakhstan two years ago today, the country’s first Earth observation satellite has been useful to international authorities for pinpointing damage after natural disasters, to local municipalities for monitoring coastal erosion and to researchers for gauging the effects of harmful algal blooms.

Eiast also sees the satellite as a step towards its goal of being one of the world’s top space agencies within the next decade.

“One of the biggest accomplishments for us has been slowly building up a group here that will have the capability to develop our own technology, and right now, representing the UAE on a global forum,” said Salem Al Marri, the head of Eiast’s space programme.

Officials from Eiast have spent the past two years forming partnerships with international organisations as the finishing touches are put to its satellite’s successor, DubaiSat-2, at a manufacturing plant in South Korea.

The hope is that the Emirati engineers working on the design – some for as long as seven years by the time of launch – will bring their expertise back to Dubai, transferring their knowledge to a team that could begin building a third satellite on UAE soil in the next five years.

DubaiSat-2, which will be able to produce higher-quality images, is expected to launch from Russia at the end of next year.

Meanwhile, Eiast is finalising plans for more laboratories, is installing antennae in other parts of the world and has begun welcoming international companies to set up their antennae in its compound in Dubai.

Eiast is exchanging image data with the Thailand’s National Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, and has collaborated with Japan’s space agency on a propulsion subsystem, the technology used to control the satellite’s spin in orbit.

Through the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the UN-SPIDER (Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response) programme, Eiast was tapped to provide image data several times a day during Pakistan’s deadly monsoon floods last year.

“Our images are part of a bigger picture of a situation at different times, different angles, and at very high and very low resolutions,” said Mr Al Marri.

As it expands its distribution base beyond Asia and South America, currently working on contracts in North America and the Middle East, Eiast has also looked for opportunities to collect more data in a 24-hour period.

An antenna in South Korea is expected to soon go online to retrieve and process data each time the satellite passes, doubling its capability. Another, in Svalbard, Norway, already makes 14 contacts every day. From its control centre in Dubai, Eiast collects data on two of the four occasions the satellite passes each day.

Unlike the first satellite, which was based on an existing design, DubaiSat-2 has been drawn up by Emirati and Korean engineers.
At 300kg, it will weigh a third more than its predecessor, and will have a resolution of one metre, compared with 2.5 metres. It will orbit closer to the Earth at a faster speed, and cover 17,000 square metres per day, compared with the 12,000 square metres covered by DubaiSat-1.

Mr Al Marri stressed the importance of the images for local government departments in urban planning, coastal monitoring, and tracking the degree or thickness of fog, for instance.

Ammar Al Muhairi, an associate research engineer at Eiast, has been doing studies with Khalifa University on the effects of desalination plants along the UAE coast.

Studying images from mid-2008 to the present, he can clearly see variations in the coastline as well as changes in the infrared band, which shows changes in radiance from below the water’s surface and therefore water quality.

“Using an image alone you can see how high temperatures, salinity or sediments from desalination plants affect the shore,” he said. “You can see just by examining the image.”

econroy@thenational.ae

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