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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Sheikh Mohammed: First UAE astronaut is heading to the stars next year

Flight on a Russian Soyuz spaceship is said to be April 2019

A rocket Soyuz in the launch assembly on June 18, 2018 in Samara, Russia. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
A rocket Soyuz in the launch assembly on June 18, 2018 in Samara, Russia. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

The countdown has begun. April 2019 is when the first Emirati astronaut is due blast into space.

In a deal signed with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, a Soyuz rocket will carry the UAE astronaut on mission to the International Space Station.

According to the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, the mission will last ten days, with the flight, MS-12, carrying a Russian commander and American flight engineer.

The identity of the first UAE astronaut is still to be revealed, Dubai Media Office, quoting the space centre in a tweet, says training will begin next month.

The news was first announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who called it an “historic agreement.”

"Our vision to develop the national space sector, which began 12 years ago, is beginning to bear fruit,” Sheikh Mohammed wrote on his Twitter feed.

Sheikh Mohammed gave the Emirates Mars Mission, the construction of the first UAE-made satellite KhalifaSat and the training of Emirati astronauts as examples of the country's progression in the field.

The agreement was signed on the side lines of the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE), in the Austrian capital Vienna this week.

It was signed on behalf of the UAE by Yousef Hamad Al Shaibani, Director General of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, and Ahmed Bahloul Al Falasi, Minister of State for Higher Education and Advanced Skills.

It was announced last year that the UAE was creating an astronaut corps, with the aim of sending an Emirati into space by 2021.

Over 4,000 people applied, with shortlist of 95 men and women between the ages of 23 and 48 announced earlier this month.

The final corps of four would then undergo training for long term missions on the ISS, an international collaboration between five bodies, including the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, which represents 13 nations.

The intention is that UAE astronauts would carry out long term scientific research lasting many months on the ISS.

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Read more:

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Soyuz MS-12 is part of Mission 59 to the space station. At present only two of the three crew in the capsule have been announced: Oleg Skripochka, a veteran Russian commander, and Christina Hammock, an American who became a Nasa astronaut in 2013.

The third seat now seems to have been reserved for the UAE. That mission is due to return to Earth in October next year, so it is not yet clear how the UAE member of the crew will return earlier, if as announced.

He - or she - will be the third Arab astronaut into space, after Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud who flew in the Space Shuttle in 1985 and Syrian Mohammed Faris, who visited the Russian Mir space station in 1987.

The Russian Soyuz is a workhorse of space exploration, first developed under the Soviet Union and blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrone in what is now Kazakhstan.

Since Nasa ended its Space Shuttle programme in 2011, it has been the only way to send astronauts to the ISS, which was built jointly by Russia and the US, each of whom has its own section.

The US currently is paying Russia to fly its astronauts to the ISS, a cost that has steadily risen to over $80 million for each seat, and an overall cost of over US$3 billion.

However, the US is currently getting ready for the first flight of its Starliner capsule, developed by Boeing, with Nasa hoping to be able to send flights to the ISS as early as the end of next year and ending the costly deal with Russia.

There is also potential competition from the private sector. Both Space X and Blue Horizon, backed respectively by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are developing manned flight.

Space X has also successfully sent cargo flights to the space station on its Dragon capsule, including the winning Genes In Space experiment by Dubai schoolgirl Alia Al Mansoori in a competition sponsored by The National.

Later this year, a Japanese commercial rocket is due to take KhalifaSat into orbit. The Earth observation satellite is the first to be built by Emirati engineers at the MBRSC.

Further in the future is the Emirates Mission to Mars, the first by an Arab country to the planet, which will place a scientific mission in orbit by 2021, the 60th anniversary of the UAE.