x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tourism in orbit is focus of space forum

Space tourism figures prominently in a forum at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

ABU DHABI // Within minutes, tourists could be shot 100 kilometres above the Earth to weightlessness, and could admire world wonders like the Grand Canyon or the sun's shimmer on a number of oceans from the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Space tourism generated a number of proposals yesterday at the Global Space and Satellite Forum. Competitors in the emerging industry competed for potential funding from the capital during the event at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec).

Industry leaders detailed projects planned in other countries, and estimated that the space tourism industry could be worth US$7.5 billion (Dh27.67bn) by 2030, with as many as 300,000 people having the opportunity to launch into a suborbital ride.

The companies also touted the "life-changing" experience that will soon be offered in other parts of the world.

The UAE has invested in local satellite technology and holds a large stake in Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial space flight firm. The company, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, has said its first passengers could lift off as early as next year from its yet-to-be-finished American spaceport.

Virgin Galactic also has said it wishes to eventually build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, while other companies, such as Bigelow Aerospace, have met with local officials to bring space tourism to the UAE.

That has prompted other international firms to take notice, as well. Andrew Nelson, the chief operating officer of US-based Xcor Aerospace, said at the conference yesterday that the company's first rocketplanes should launch by 2014 from the island of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles and from South Korea. The spacecraft could also be available for launch from the UAE by that time, he said.

The benefit of the rocket, dubbed the Lynx, is that it would require less infrastructure because it launches and lands horizontally, much like an airplane.

The total ride would last 30 minutes, with less than five minutes in space. Besides space tourism, the shuttle would also be used for microgravity research.

Industry officials said a ticket to outer space currently runs between US$95,000 (Dh348,650) and $200,000 (Dh734,000).

While there are advantages of outsourcing space technology and support for aircraft or satellites, the benefit for a country to launch its own spacecraft is that "you are always in control of decisions, quality, cost," said Christopher Bauer, the vice president of commercial sales for space transport company Space Explorations Technologies, or SpaceX.

The UAE must now decide whether it is cost-effective to have its own space technology built and launched locally rather than abroad, said Dr Omar al Emam, a space technology adviser for the Arab Science and Technology Foundation. Doing so could take decades, he said.

"Space is no longer something nice to be involved in, but essential to provide certain services," he said. "The question would be then whether to build and launch your own satellite or if it is cheaper to commission others to do so to your specifications."

The conference, which also examines the use of satellites for everything from television broadcasting to earth observation and national security, "puts the country on the cutting edge, at least in the region," said Dennis Jones of US-based Jones Consulting Group.

Today, Mr Jones is scheduled to chair panels on earth observation, commercial imagery and remote sensing technology.

"As it is staking out a position of leadership in the space domain, a lot of companies and countries want to cooperate with the UAE," he said.

Local officials highlighted how satellite imaging gathered by DubaiSat-1, typically used for everything from urban planning to monitoring shoreline erosion, was useful to international authorities in disaster recovery after Japan's tsunami and nuclear crises.

"The benefit of having our own satellite and technology is that the data is available to us whenever we need it," said Adnan Mohammed al Rais, the head of ground systems for the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), which operates the satellite.

"We have our own images so that if anything were to happen with an emergency, pollution, any special case, we are prepared and do not have to submit a request to someone else," Mr Rais said.

EIAST plans to launch its second satellite, DubaiSat-2, next year.



UAE control centre takes over Yahsat satellite:

ABU DHABI // Operations for Yahsat’s first commercial satellite have been handed over to its control centre, where Emirati engineers will conduct the final in-orbit tests before it begins beaming services to users next month.

With the assistance of Yahsat officials, the satellite had been controlled by a team of engineers in French Guiana, where it was launched last month, and then by its manufacturers in France. Earlier this week, the satellite reached its mark in orbit, about 36,000 kilometres above Earth.

Yahsat, or Al Yah Satellite Communications, is owned by Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company controlled by the Abu Dhabi Government. Engineers and technicians at the control centre in Al Falah, about a half-hour drive outside the capital, will now work around the clock, testing equipment to make sure antennas and receivers are working correctly and that the coverage areas are in-line, said Ross Barker, director of satellite operations.

“These are the same tests that are done in the factory, but we have to make sure that the launch was not too strenuous and that the harsh space environment has not affected it,” he said, adding that it is very unlikely there will be any changes.

Services for internet, mobile-phone and television from the satellite should begin beaming down to users in five weeks, he said.

* Erin Conroy