x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Is space the UAE's next frontier?

Sunday focusThe UAE is preparing to launch its first home-grown satellite by the end of this year - a significant step steeped both in space history and the promise of future developments.

Emiratis working in South Korea on the Dubai Sat-1 project.
Emiratis working in South Korea on the Dubai Sat-1 project.

On Jan 28, 1986, the world watched in horror as the Nasa space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the 25th flight in the shuttle programme and the first to carry a "civilian" on board. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was one of the crew of seven who all died that day when, just over a minute after take-off and 14 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, Challenger was destroyed.

It was the single worst disaster in the 40-year history of extraterrestrial exploration and, says Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, marked the moment the romance went out of mankind's relationship with space. "The whole world paused and slowed down on its space adventure after witnessing the Challenger disaster," he says. Prince Sultan was closer to the disaster than most. On June 17, 1985, just seven months before the Challenger blew apart, the Saudi Royal Air Force fighter pilot blasted off from Cape Canaveral on board another shuttle, the Discovery, for a seven-day mission as a payload specialist, helping to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organisation.

As the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of royalty to travel into space, Prince Sultan became an icon across the region, the poster boy for a growing pan-Arabian feeling that the sky was the limit. His adventure brought the romance of space into homes across the Middle East as Arabs watched him carry out a series of experiments designed by Saudi scientists, telephone his uncle, the late King Fahd, and give a televised guided tour of the shuttle's interior.

He was also the first person to observe Islamic prayers and read the Quran in zero gravity - and to consider the question of locating the Kaaba, the holy building at the heart of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, from space. "The Kaaba position kept on changing as we passed through 16 sunrises and sunsets every day and so I just faced planet Earth and prayed," he says. "It was remarkable, I can never forget it."

But what appeared at the time to be an exciting beginning was cut short just months later. The Challenger disaster not only cast a pall over the entire US programme, but also killed off many planned Arab adventures in space. Suddenly the romance of space adventure, personified by McAuliffe's preflight remark, "What are we doing here? We're reaching for the stars", seemed to come at too high a price.

"There were big plans and great projects discussed and more Saudis and Arabs were going to travel into space," says Prince Sultan."But all of that was put on hold." Then world events conspired to keep those plans on hold even longer. In 1961, the same year President Kennedy announced America's intention of landing a man on the Moon, the Soviet Union had begun building the Berlin Wall. Its collapse in November 1989, three years after the Challenger explosion, and the subsequent unravelling of the USSR, signalled the end of the Cold War and the last laps of the space race.

Hard on the heels of those momentous events came the 1990 Gulf War, with its massive financial consequences prompting a rethink of regional priorities. Today, however, space is back in the frame - and the Gulf's great adventure is showing signs of getting back on the launch pad. At the National Security Summit in Dubai on Monday, the Arab Science and Technology Foundation said the time was right for the formation of a Middle East and North Africa Space Agency, based on the civilian model of the European Space Agency.

There had, said Dr Omar al Emam of the Sharjah-based foundation, "been discussions about it in the Arab League and several countries have unofficially shown their support. I think it is a realistic goal." By next year, he hoped, there would be "a regional organisation to disseminate images from observation satellites and help interpret them, and I think a larger space agency could follow on from that". One advantage of the collaboration would be to reduce costs: "Countries could share the financial burden so it costs each one tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions, to have a satellite in space."

Increasingly, countries not traditionally associated with space are reaching for the skies. On Oct 22, following the launch last year of lunar probes by the Chinese and the Japanese, an Indian-built rocket blasted off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh, carrying a lunar orbiter on a mission to map, scan and film the surface of the Moon. If all goes well, the satellite will deploy India's flag, making it only the fourth country to plant its colours on the surface of the Moon.

Also last month, three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-7, China's third manned mission, carried out the country's first space walks. With Chinese help, Venezuela has also joined the space club. On Thursday a Chinese Long March rocket, operated by the Great Wall Corporation, lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre carrying aloft the Venezuela 1 Telecom Satellite. The UAE, meanwhile, is preparing to launch its first home-grown satellite by the end of this year - a significant step steeped both in space history and the promise of future developments.

"Advancement in space technology is the way of the future," says Ahmed Obaid al Mansoori, the director general of the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), an initiative of the Dubai government. For the past two years, EIAST's team of 12 Emirati engineers and specialists from across the UAE have been working with the South Korean firm Satrec Initiative on the Dubai Sat-1 project.

EIAST says the satellite will be the UAE's "eye in the sky", helping the country with urban planning and environmental monitoring. "This is a great scientific tool that will help us better plan our development and manage any natural disasters," says Mr Mansoori. It is not the first Arab-operated satellite in space. Thuraya, a UAE company founded in 1997, has three communications satellites in orbit, servicing its satellite-telephone and broadband operations. The first, now redundant, was launched in 2000, and the most recent in January this year. All three, however, were made by Boeing.

"The best part about this is how now we have a satellite made for the UAE by the UAE, and it will cultivate a new Emirati entity in the space industry," says Mr Mansoori. "Our vision is to become pioneers in this field and make great contribution to space scientific research and technology." The heady romance of the pre-Challenger years has gone, to be replaced with a hard-headed, pragmatic approach to the business of space: today's Arabian space generation is reaching for the stars, but with its feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nevertheless, the magic of the Great Space Adventure still lingers for those closely involved. Speaking by telephone from South Korea, Salem al Marri, the Dubai Sat-1 project's Emirati manager, says with undisguised excitement: "My God, I am right here now, touching it." Part of the excitement stems from the unbroken narrative of space exploration, which touches all who come into contact with it. Dubai Sat-1 will be carried into orbit by a Dnepr rocket operated by the International Space Company Kosmotras, a joint Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakhstani organisation. The Dnepr dates from the Soviet era and has its origins in the intercontinental ballistic missiles that once carried the USSR's Cold War warheads.

It has not yet decided whether Dubai Sat-1 will be carried aloft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the deserts of Kazakhstan - the scene of the historic launch of Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1, the first manned space flight - or from a former ICBM base near Yasny in Russia. After all the years of work, once it has left the launch pad the satellite will be in space in about an hour. "This is an exciting time for us," says Mr Marri, 26. "Space technology takes all the engineering field to a whole different level."

The UAE is determined to play a significant part in the new space race; between Nov 16 and 18, top industry and government experts from around the world will gather at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre for the inaugural Global Space Technology Forum, the first event of its kind in the Middle East. Whether the excitement of the new momentum will be enough to one day propel the UAE - or, at least, its flag - to the Moon, remains to be seen. * The National