UAE Mars Mission: Laying the foundation of a space industry

Team behind the unmanned Mars probe talks about how space science is slowly captivating Emirati youth

  • Emirati engineers working on the flight model of KhalifaSat.Image Credit: MBRSC
  • Emirati engineers working on the flight model of KhalifaSat.Image Credit: MBRSC
Gulf News

Dubai: Just a little over a year since the UAE announced its Mars mission, interest in space science has started gathering momentum among younger Emiratis.

Courtesy: MBRSC

An Emirati engineer working on the flight model of KhalifaSat at the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre.

With the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) starting development of its third satellite — KhalifaSat, due for launch in 2018 — the interest will only grow.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced last year that the UAE would send the first Arab probe to Mars to create mankind’s first integrated model of the Martian atmosphere.

To be launched in July 2020, the unmanned probe called Al Amal (Arabic for hope) will go an approximately 200-day journey. It is expected to enter Mars’ orbit in the first quarter of 2021, in time for the UAE’s 50th National Day.

Roughly four years before the launch, the team behind the mission is comfortably hitting its targets.

“The Mars Mission is on schedule and we’re moving forward with the schedule. We are currently in the subsystem design phase, which should be completed by the end of the year,” Omran Sharaf, Project Manager of the UAE Mars Mission, told Gulf News during a visit to MBRSC.

The mission is not only focused on the journey to the red planet; team members are busy conducting workshops to prepare the community and scientific community on how to utilise the data that will be gathered by the probe.

“This is a very important milestone because you are preparing future scientists to use your data because the data is novel. It’s never been provided before and you need to have people who already know how to use it,” Sharaf said.

The centre houses more than 150 Emirati employees, 70 per cent of whom are engineers. Salem Humaid Al Merri, Assistant Director at MBRSC, said that while that number is good for now, the country will need more space scientists and engineers in the coming years.

“Definitely, we need more UAE scientists, engineers and technicians. The more we have in this field, the better for this country, especially as we’re transitioning to a knowledge-based economy,” Al Merri said.

The centre aims to achieve this by taking a central role in reaching out to the community and sparking interest in space science among students, which includes a weekly tour of the centre.

“When I was a kid, we used to go to the Emirates Macaroni factory, or Pepsi factory; these were fields trips we used to take. The field trips that these kids are taking now are to this space centre,” Al Merri said.

Apart from the weekly tours, the centre has also reached more than 10,000 students in the UAE through the Teacher Ambassador programme, which trains educators to hone the next generations’ engineers and scientists.



Yousuf Al Shaibani, Director-General of MBRSC, inspects the parts of the KhalifaSat that are currently being developed at the centre.



“So if 10 per cent of that number [10,000 students] would say, ‘I want to go into sciences, I want to study maths, I want to study physics, we’ve succeeded,” Al Merri said.

A lot has changed among students’ mindsets, Sharaf said, and it’s all thanks to Shaikh Mohammad’s vision for the Emirati youth, strong government support for space science and exploration, and also, the Mars Mission.

“We see students line up to attend the science workshops we hold. That for us is a shift in interest amongst students,” Sharaf said.

The limited career path for engineers and scientists has changed as the government transitions to a post-oil economy.

“Before, they had quite a limited career path, especially when you’re focused on science, but now you have a chance to even work in space missions and so on.”

Among these students is 22-year-old Sara Al Janahi, a maths major from the University of Oregon in the US. She is one of nine Emirati students who took part in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programme where the centre sponsors students for a two-month hands-on research experience in space in its partner universities in the US.

“Initially, I didn’t see the connection between maths and space. I thought it was impossible,” Al Janahi said.

Al Janahi was ultimately convinced of the usefulness of her major in space science through the programme. And it persuaded her family and friends too.

“Right now, I am seeing that a lot of people are going into that field. Three years ago, when I started as a maths major, my parents were telling me, ‘You’re gonna be a teacher’. But now, they’re like, ‘You should go into space, it’s a new field’.”

UAE’s most advanced imaging satellite to be launched in 2018

The UAE has been working in the space industry for a decade now since the establishment of the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) in 2006. In this arena, 10 years may be a short time, but it’s enough to allow the country to launch two Earth observation satellites, the DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2.

“In terms of space, 10 years is quite a short time for a country to be working in this field, but if you look at the last 10 years, these are very large achievements for a small country in that small timeframe. This is something that we are very proud of,” Salem Humaid Al Merri, Assistant Director at MBRSC, said.

The centre has now started the development of the flight model of its third satellite, the KhalifaSat, the UAE’s most technologically advanced imaging satellite, which is due for launch in 2018.

“First, we will make a prototype and when we find that the systems work, we will go and build the actual flight model. KhalifaSat is a result of previous missions, but it is also building up for the next missions,” Amer Al Sayegh, Project Manager of KhalifaSat, said.

The previous missions, the DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2, have greatly benefitted the UAE. The centre provides free satellite images and data to government agencies such as the Dubai Land Department for urban planning and monitoring programmes.

“They have said that the images save them a lot of time surveying some areas, instead of sending the whole crew and their equipment to that site to survey the area. So it saves a lot of cost and time,” Al Sayegh said.

KhalifaSat, which is 100 per cent developed by Emirati engineers, represents the full cycle of the centre’s third strategy in 10 years — self-development of spacecrafts. The first two are knowledge and technology transfer, which mainly happened in South Korea when the centre started, and joint development of spacecraft where Emirati engineers collaborated with its international partners for the DubaiSat2.

Mohammad Al Sahoul, a mechanical engineer, worked on the DubaiSat2 in South Korea and was tasked to transfer the knowledge he learned there to his colleagues in the UAE. He is also responsible for designing the structure of the KhalifaSat spacecraft and assembly it.

“I feel very proud to bring back this know-how here and to build the KhalifaSat in the UAE, the first to be designed and built here,” Al Sahoul, 29, said.

Maitha Ahmad Sharif, 24, an electrical engineer who joined the KhalifaSat programme 10 months ago, is equally proud although work could be pretty challenging. She said: “It’s a challenging environment but it is suitable for a woman to work here because you have closed labs, small equipment and high and accurate programmes to work with for designing.”

Sharif’s interest shifted from pursuing renewable energy to space science after she designed her first cube satellite while in university. She said many more of her peers are considering the field.

“In space, there are many things to experience and explore and there’s a huge space for people to invent even and test their invention on what they did or study in,” she said.

And this space for people can be an avenue for the region to excel again in a field it once was a major player of, Omran Sharaf said.

“The message of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad to the youth of this region — we’re talking about a region that has more than 200 million youth with a lot of potential, a lot of abilities, and a lot of energy and opportunities — is that basically, if the UAE, a small nation, is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you guys can do much more.”

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