x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UAE to launch first government satellite

Scientists and engineers scramble to finish preparations for launching the UAE's first government satellite, DubaiSat-1, in time for lift-off.

An artist's impression of the DubaiSat-1, which is due to launch on Wednesday.
An artist's impression of the DubaiSat-1, which is due to launch on Wednesday.

ABU DHABI // T-minus four days and counting. The UAE's first government satellite, DubaiSat-1, is set to ride a tower of flame and smoke into orbit on Wednesday, carrying with it more than three years of work and Dh184 million (US$50 million) in research and development costs.

The 200kg remote sensing satellite, mounted at the tip of a Russian-made Dnepr-1 rocket, will reach the edge of space, about 64km up, two minutes after its 9pm UAE time launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. From there it will gather altitude and speed until it achieves its orbital velocity of about 27,000kph, some 680km above the ground. The satellite, which was designed and built as part of a joint project with scientists from South Korea, will use a high-resolution camera to take detailed photographs of the region for use in urban planning and disaster relief.

The launch was initially slated for today but was postponed this week to allow for last-minute checks. The UAE companies Yahsat and Thuraya have previously launched communications satellites, but this will be the first government device sent into orbit. Dr Tim O'Brien, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, said the UAE project was a great step forward for the country.

"This is a good achievement for [the UAE]," he said. "This project shows that satellites are no longer just in the realm of superpower countries." Last night the 16-man Emirati team was carrying out final checks ahead of the launch and could not be contacted. Ahmed al Mansoori, director general of the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), which oversaw the project, said last month: "The satellite marks the UAE's entry in to a new era of innovation, scientific and technological exploration.

"With the launch of DubaiSat-1, we are reiterating our goal to strengthen the involvement of UAE nationals in space technology research." The Dubai-based organisation's satellite was repeatedly delayed last year after a series of logistical problems and administrative issues. A hi-tech receiver station, which will collect and process the detailed images beamed back from the satellite, also was built as part of the project.

The launch at the high-security cosmodrome, where Yuri Gagarin lifted off to become the first man in space in 1961, will be supervised by the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) through the Moscow-based international space company Kosmotras. Ed Stevens, a team leader in the assembly, integration and test division of the satellite construction firm Surrey Satellite Technology, which also has a satellite on the same Dnepr-1 rocket, said the engineers would be counting down the days until launch.

"It can be quite a nerve-racking time," Mr Stevens said. "All the hard work comes together. A couple of weeks before the launch, the satellite will be transferred to the launch site. "The focus then is to make sure that it has not been damaged during shipping to the launch site and that it is in a correct state to launch. "Around three or four days ahead of the launch, the satellites will be transferred to the launch vehicle. Then everything is really in the hands of the launch agency."

The rocket is then fuelled with hypergolic liquid propellants - chemicals that ignite on contact with each other - and the final countdown begins. It is expected that DubaiSat-1 will be able to beam back sample images to Earth within hours of achieving orbit, but it could be several days before the satellite is fully operational, making it a nervous time for the DubaiSat-1 engineers. "There are any number of things that can go wrong with a satellite launch," said Dr Stephen Hobbs, director of the space research centre at Cranfield University. "A rocket is basically a huge tower full of explosives, to which you are attaching fragile piece of sensitive scientific equipment.

"The launch sequence puts tremendous strain on the parts. They are exposed to powerful vibrations and [acceleration]." Delays are common in satellite launches, due to a combination of last-minute technical glitches or adverse weather conditions. "The challenges don't stop after the launch," added Dr Hobbs. "Space is a very harsh environment. "The sun's rays are very powerful out in space. We are protected from the worst of it on Earth because of our atmosphere.

"There are strong ultraviolet rays and particle radiation which degrade materials. Many materials just don't survive in space. Most plastics are useless and degrade quickly." The satellite will also have to withstand dramatic temperature changes. When in sunlight, it can be heated to about 200C, while in shadow the temperature can plummet to close to absolute zero, or minus 270C. The satellite has a minimum lifespan of five years and will take thousands of detailed pictures of the UAE, which will be sent back to the receiver station moments later via a high bandwidth radio antenna.

A second, lower-bandwidth antenna allows engineers on the ground to send instructions to the satellite. The images will be sent to the ground station, which monitors and manages the satellite, an image receiving station and a processing centre. A series of complex algorithms have also been written to allow scientists to interpret the data, which will be available to all government bodies and academic institutions.

The spacecraft is powered by solar panels, which charge batteries to keep the electrical systems running when it is in shadow. Experts estimate the satellite will circumnavigate the Earth every 100 minutes, spending approximately 60 per cent of its time in sunlight. chamilton@thenational.ae