x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Capital ideal for space hub

As the launch of Atlantis winds up the US shuttle programme, many in the private sector see Abu Dhabi as an ideal launch pad for commercial space flights.

The US space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final flight of the shuttle programme. Bruce Weaver / AFP
The US space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final flight of the shuttle programme. Bruce Weaver / AFP

ABU DHABI // It was instrumental in building the International Space Station and deployed technology that helps us to see millions of times further into space than we ever could before.

But perhaps America's decades-long space shuttle programme, retired after Friday's final launch of Atlantis, was best known for its manned space flight.

Now Nasa, the US space administration, is devoting its budgets to the emerging commercial space industry, and will rely heavily on private companies to build the spacecraft for ferrying supplies and people to and from the International Space Station nearly 400km above Earth.

And as the private sector vies for those contracts and investments for other ventures - space tourism, research for pharmaceutical companies in zero gravity, and even city-to-city travel from outside of Earth's atmosphere - many are casting their eyes towards Abu Dhabi, which is shaping up as an attractive location for possible spaceports and space technology.

But can the UAE, which already has a burgeoning satellite technology sector, take the next step to become a hub for hosting, building and launching in the new commercial space race?

"The UAE is an ideal country that is seeing incredible technological progress and is looking to not only stay in competition with other states and nations, but actually get ahead of them," said Mike Gold of US-based Bigelow Aerospace, a spacecraft developer that is currently competing for Nasa contracts.

"We are seeing space, which was dominated by the US and Russia, completely opening up and, theoretically, you could see UAE development that could rival Nasa."

It's not there yet.

While the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) has seen success with the launch of its remote imaging satellite DubaiSat-1, used for everything from urban planning to assisting in international efforts in disaster recovery after Japan's tsunami and nuclear crises, most of its design and manufacturing was done outside of the UAE.

Its successor, DubaiSat-2, is currently being built by a South Korean company, though officials said about half the design has been done by Emirati engineers. The satellite is due to be launched at the end of next year from Yasny Cosmodrome in northern Russia by a Moscow-based space company.

Similarly, Yahsat - owned by Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company controlled by the Abu Dhabi Government - was built in Europe and launched from French Guiana earlier this year.

"In terms of the UAE becoming a space hub and launching our own, that is difficult to achieve and very costly," said the director of EIAST's space programme department, Salem Al Marri.

"Right now we are focusing on technology transfer programmes so that we can design, develop and manufacture our own in the UAE in the next five to 10 years."

In terms of taking advantage of a potential new era of manned space travel, Abu Dhabi does appear to be well positioned.

If everything goes according to plan for Virgin Galactic, the billionaire Richard Branson's project in which an Abu Dhabi investment firm is a major stakeholder, the capital could eventually hold a facility for transcontinental flights that would leave and re-enter the atmosphere.

A trip from Abu Dhabi to California could be made in two hours and would have lower carbon emissions than conventional flights, which use more fuel to propel themselves through the denser lower atmosphere, company officials said.

For the moment, Virgin Galactic is focusing on the launch of its SpaceShipTwo from its new spaceport, amid the sands of southern New Mexico in the US. The vessel, currently in a test-flight programme, would make individuals' dreams of space flight come true for US$200,000 (Dh734,600).

"We know there is an appetite in Abu Dhabi to create a commercial space sector," said Stephen Attenborough, the company's commercial director.

"A lot of the things Nasa has been doing itself and doing well can now be taken over by the private sector to build on that experience, perhaps more efficiently, more effectively, more environmentally-friendly and in a way that would provide much better value."

He said SpaceShipTwo could launch in the next 18 months, at which point the company would seek approval to fly from the US to other places around the world.

"If we were successful in getting approvals, Abu Dhabi would certainly be where we would look first," he said.

Officials from other international spaceflight companies including Bigelow Aerospace and Xcor Aerospace have met with local officials in an effort to bring space tourism to the UAE in what they said could be as little as the next few years.

Some of the rockets are capable of launching and landing horizontally, much like a plane, so they would need less infrastructure than a conventional rocket.

Several companies are also looking to use their vessels to cash in on another emerging niche: microgravity research.

In-orbit pharmaceutical and biotechnology research and development has been conducted almost exclusively in conjunction with Nasa, but now the commercial market is opening up.

Scientific experiments done in zero gravity allow proteins to crystallise more perfectly, allowing researchers to study the chemical compositions of three-dimensional cell structures. Tissue cultures suspended in microgravity have more freedom to grow than they would in a flat Petri dish, showing much promise for the development of preventive medicines.

"Having labs on-board our vessels could help subsidise the cost of flying everyday people into space," Mr Gold said. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the EIAST earlier this year to create a commercial human space flight programme in the UAE that would include a world-class microgravity research and development programme.

With so many differing approaches to changes in the commercial landscape, the country is facing a crossroads in terms of whether it wants to focus on certain technologies, such as satellites, or if it wants to become a launching point, said Dr Omar Al Emam, a space technology adviser for the Arab Science and Technology Foundation.

The UAE will also have to decide whether it is cost-effective to have its space technology built and launched locally rather than abroad, he said.

"It is really a question of whether it is viable to build a space industry or to just focus on services, and that requires buying from governments to make it work," he said. "It will take a lot of learning to build something that can really become commercially successful."