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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

'It could be a game-changer': the case for a UAE deep space radio telescope 

Emirates Mars Mission would benefit, while it could also be used to measure sea levels, track continental drift and inspire students

An illustration of Mars. The UAE plans to send a probe to the Red Planet by 2021 and building a deep space radio telescope would allow scientists to communicate independently with the spacecraft. Getty
An illustration of Mars. The UAE plans to send a probe to the Red Planet by 2021 and building a deep space radio telescope would allow scientists to communicate independently with the spacecraft. Getty

Building a deep space radio telescope in the UAE would be a game-changer for astronomy and could inspire new generations of students to study science and engineering.

That’s the view of Joseph Gelfand, associate professor of physics at New York University Abu Dhabi, as a two-day workshop on the topic opened at the university.

It was attended by experts from across the globe, including the UAE Space Agency, to discuss one aim: what the broader benefits would be should the UAE choose to build one of these.

What is a deep space radio telescope? It’s essentially a big radio dish. Not to be confused with an optical telescope, it’s designed to transmit and collect signals. It is how space agencies tell their aircraft what to do and how data is collected, said Prof Gelfand. They can also work as a network, such as Nasa’s deep space network antenna that has radio telescopes in the US, Spain and Australia.

Central to the discussion was the Emirates Mars Mission. The country is sending a probe to the Red Planet by 2021. And building such a radio telescope would allow scientists to communicate independently with the spacecraft. While a Government decision to build one has not been made yet, the UAE Space Agency believes it would be beneficial not just for the country’s space programme but science generally. For example, they can be used to measure continental drift or examine rising sea levels. It would also create opportunities in scientific research and engineering and the workshop is exploring these other uses.

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Dr Muthanna Al Mahmoud, acting head of space science and technology at the UAE Space Agency, told the workshop that it is important that a radio antenna is built with more than one purpose.

“We’re working to establish future missions … and expanding areas for Emirati scientists,” he said.

It’s thought that a location in the Liwa desert is one of the best potential locations because of good roads and infrastructure. It is also relatively sparsely populated, meaning less interference from mobile phones, microwaves and Wi-Fi.

“It would be not just a first in the Middle East but first in a huge swath of the world,” said Professor Gelfand. “It would build strong, meaningful research and technology connections to a host of agencies at the top of their field who would want to partner with this institution because of its geographic location.

“We attracted scientists from all around the world just for this workshop. As an astronomer, it would be a game-changer. There are six radio astronomers in the UAE. Whenever we use a telescope, it has to be abroad so we apply for time. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don't but there's nothing here.”

The cost for building such a telescope varies. The cheapest would be about US$10 million while Italy just opened a 65-metre radio telescope at a cost of $65 million.

Prof Gelfand pointed to the impact the Moon programme had in the United States in stimulating research and predicted this knock-on effect could be replicated here.

“The Moon programme inspired a whole generation of scientists and engineers, which led to lots of discoveries that enhanced modern life and had nothing to do with the Moon programme. The Mars programme has the potential to do that here. Not only would the antenna talk to [the] Mars [probe] — we can use it to teach students science and engineering. It can inspire.”

Science with a potential: UAE deep space network antenna runs at NYUAD until Monday. For more information visit nyuad.nyu.edu