Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Hot competition in global space race could boost UAE plans

Return of space launches from US soil could bring down rocket seat costs, UAE official said

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from pad 39A during a test flight to demonstrate the capsule's emergency escape system at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 19. John Raoux / AP
A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from pad 39A during a test flight to demonstrate the capsule's emergency escape system at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 19. John Raoux / AP

Growing competition in the global space race could pave the way for further missions involving the UAE, a leading official said.

Since the United States' space shuttle programme was disbanded in 2011, only Russia's Soyuz craft has been able to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.

But with human space flights by Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX edging closer to become a reality, the UAE could benefit from reduced costs and more travel options.

Nasa currently pays more than $80 million per seat on the Soyuz.

These seats are very difficult to find

Salem Al Marri, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

“Costs can vary depending on the type of science and co-operation you are doing. Having more options can definitely drive that cost down,” said Salem Al Marri, the head of the UAE Astronaut Programme at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

“Usually a day in the ISS is also a very high cost and it measures how much oxygen you’ll be using, the amount of food and water, the weight and waste. The longer you stay, the higher the cost.”

It is not known how much the UAE paid Russia to send its first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, for his eight-day journey to the ISS last year.

MBRSC's agreement with Russia's space agency Roscosmos for UAE's first space mission included a Soyuz seat, using their facilities, training the astronaut and other means of collaboration.

The country is planning its second mission to space and is searching for its next astronaut. Details of the second mission are yet to be revealed and it is not yet known if the UAE has been able secure another seat on a Soyuz mission.

Hazza Al Mansouri, pictured with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and US astronaut Jessica Meir, made history when he boarded the International Space Station in September 2019. Courtesy: EPA    
Hazza Al Mansouri, pictured with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and US astronaut Jessica Meir, made history when he boarded the International Space Station in September 2019. Courtesy: EPA    

With the rapid development of human space flight technology, Mr Al Marri is hoping it will boost the number of flights for non-ISS partners.

“For the UAE, in particular, you’ll have more opportunities to get seats on different flights, whether they are on Boeing, SpaceX or Soyuz,” he said.

“These seats are very difficult to find. There are ISS partners who have a programme where they do maintenance and carry out science experiments. Getting an opportunity to launch is not easy to find, so more seats would be very beneficial to the UAE and the industry in general.”

There is still work to be done, however, before Soyuz stops being the only space seat in town.

A launchpad test of SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle - which is primed to fly astronauts to the ISS - went up in flames last April due to a titanium fire after a check valve failed.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, also designed to carry astronauts to the ISS, also suffered a failed test launch in December.

Significant investment is being made in both programmes, and the UAE is aware of the importance of having more opportunities to soar into the skies.

A key factor, Mr Al Marri pointed out, is ensuring an alternative transportation method to the ISS in case of a rocket failure.

He highlighted the incident in October 2018 when three astronauts carried out a ballistic re-entry into Earth after their Soyuz rocket experienced a failure shortly after take-off.

The incident caused delays on all upcoming flights, including the UAE’s mission. It was originally scheduled for April 5 to April 16, 2019, on Soyuz MS-12.

Lissy Donald, chief executive of the Space Rocketry and Academy UAE, said that reusability of rockets can also bring down costs of launches to low earth orbit.

“We are on the precipice of a new era in crewed spaceflight with SpaceX and Boeing leading the way, but with Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada right on their heels,” Ms Donald said.

“This is on top of the commercial crew efforts Nasa is developing with its Orion capsule and Space Launch System Rocket.

“What makes these efforts ground-breaking is the sheer number of entrepreneurs risking their own wealth but also the reusability of these new systems.”

Updated: February 26, 2020 10:56 AM

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