Yoshinobu Launch Complex seen from the Vehicle Assembly Building. Image Credit: JAXA Tanegashima Space Centre

Dubai: Demand for high-resolution images of the Earth is high but supply is not, making KhalifaSat’s entry into the Earth Observation (EO) market important in meeting this critical global demand.

The UAE’s first 100 per cent Emirati-made satellite, the KhalifaSat, will be launched at 8.08am on October 29 from the Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the JAXA Tanegashima Space Centre, in southern Japan.

The launch is a proud moment for a country so young, and its young and dynamic engineers whose passion goes beyond the skies.

The KhalifaSat is designed to capture high-resolution images with a spatial resolution of 70cm, meaning each pixel represents 70cm of the ground being captured.

Once in orbit, the KhalifaSat will be the most superior satellite in terms of imaging in the PanGeo Alliance fleet. The next satellite expected to outperform KhalifaSat in the fleet will not be launched until 2021 — Canada’s OptiSAR-OPT with 50cm resolution.

The PanGeo Alliance is an organisation of seven EO satellite operators, including the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the UAE. It currently supplies daily global imaging capability with its 13 operational satellites.

“Demand for earth images is very high but the supply is not. This is where KhalifaSat comes in,” Amer Al Sayegh, KhalifaSat project manager at MBRSC, told Gulf News.

 The image quality we’re expecting from the KhalifaSat are the ones you usually see from much bigger satellites. We reduced the size of the satellite ... but did not compromise on its imaging capability.”

 - Amer Al Sayegh | KhalifaSat Project Manager, MBRSC 



“For example, a country wants an image of its whole territory. One satellite cannot do it alone, so KhalifaSat comes in with other satellites from the Pan-Geo Alliance. MBRSC is allied with different companies globally to provide such comprehensive solutions to different customers all over the world,” he added. In terms of science and technology, KhalifaSat is not a typical one, Al Sayegh said.

“The image quality we’re expecting from the KhalifaSat are the ones you usually see from much bigger satellites. We reduced the size of the satellite, reduced the weight, compressed it into a much smaller scale but did not compromise on its imaging capability,” Al Sayegh said.

Big market for Earth’s images

The current biggest market for MBRSC’s Earth images is the UAE government, particularly Dubai Municipality and other environmental organisations, where images are provided for free, Ammar Al Muhairi, manager of the Image Processing Section at MBRSC, said.

Within the Gulf region, Kuwait and Bahrain are big clients, too, although the images are given to them for free.


But the commercial demand for these images is also present locally and internationally from countries such as Spain, among others, Al Muhairi said.

The commercial EO data market is projected to further grow and could reach $2.4 billion (Dh8.8 billion) in 2027 globally, due to demand from a mixture of defence and new commercial markets and supported by the arrival of new constellation operators, based on the 11th edition of the Satellite-Based Earth Observation: Market Prospects to 2027.

It is estimated that the total global space economy today is over $350 billion, out of which 76 per cent is business revenues. The UAE’s entry into the space arena aims to tap into this sector with an investment of more than Dh22 billion in space projects. Hence, the KhalifaSat’s launch is just the beginning of the country’s long journey into space, a vision extending beyond a century.

“This is a unique mission. We started this vision with the higher leadership in the UAE 12 years ago. It’s a shift in the way we look at science and technology in the UAE. KhalifaSat represents a catalyst project in having a space industry in the UAE that will build an ecosystem around us,” Al Sayegh said.



They dreamed it, they did it

Dubai: Back in university, Abdullah Al Shehi worked on the UAE’s first nanosatellite. The project sparked his love for space tech that made him part of the 70-member team that built the country’s first purely Emirati-made satellite, the KhalifaSat.

The senior mechanical engineer’s role was to design and analyse the structure of KhalifaSat that’s due for launch tomorrow. He also supported the assembly of the spacecraft.

The Emirati engineers with the KhalifaSat in Japan. Courtesy: Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre

“My senior design project was Nayif-1, the first UAE cube satellite. This was my senior exam before graduating from university. I had the passion to continue working on space tech; it was very new in the UAE then,” Al Shehi, 26, told Gulf News.

He was among the first generation of Emiratis to receive the transfer of knowledge by the first batch of 10 Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) engineers who worked and studied in South Korea in 2006 to build the DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2.

 We consider KhalifaSat as the backbone of this space centre. In the beginning, many people said [our project] was impossible... however, it is ready for launch.”

 - Abdullah Al Shehi | Senior Mechanical Engineer 


Coming from a family of engineers, building something worthwhile came naturally for Al Shehi. But the long hours of work - in and out of the clean room where the satellite was built - was what he found most challenging.

“We had to finish everything on a strict deadline. So we would start work at 6am and finish at around 3pm or 4pm. The most critical part is while doing the assembly itself. So you have a very long procedure. Even while doing the assembly, you have to write down every step and anything that changes.”

The task was so challenging, it follows them in their dreams sometimes.

“We have a joke in the mechanical section — if you’re not dreaming about the project, then you’re not doing it right,” said Al Shehi. But jokes apart, he said they were able to maintain work-life balance because the project was planned and managed well.

The H-IIA rocket that will be launching KhalifaSat into orbit. Courtesy: Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre

 If you put your heart and soul into something, you can achieve it, maybe not today, not tomorrow, but eventually you’re going to achieve it. Now, we’re ready for the next project.”

 - Abdullah Al Shehi | Senior Mechanical Engineer 



Now that his “baby”, KhalifaSat, is ready for launch, every effort was worth it, he said.

“We consider KhalifaSat as the backbone of this space centre. In the beginning, many people said [our project] was impossible. They called it the impossible journey. However, KhalifaSat is now ready to launch, so nothing really is impossible.

“If you put your heart and soul into something, you can achieve it, maybe not today, not tomorrow, but eventually you’re going to achieve it. Now, we’re ready for the next project,” said Al Shehi.

Reem Rashid Al Mehisni

By Janice Ponce de Leon, Staff Reporter

Dubai: For a nuclear engineer who got into space tech engineering as her first job, the shift was nothing less than stimulating and rewarding.

Reem Rashid Al Mehisni, 24, was one of the team of engineers who laboured tirelessly to make the KhalifaSat launch-ready.

Reem’s role was to do a detailed thermal analysis simulation of the KhalifaSat, install the thermal control subsystem hardware, and conduct thermal tests. These steps are done to make sure that the spacecraft’s temperature will be maintained within the specified limit in all the mission phases—during launch, through the travel, until it goes to space.

Because of their work, the clean room essentially became their second home.

 I loved how the team worked as one to solve the issue within hours. I also discovered strong points within myself as an engineer solving problems. This is something I will never forget.”

 - Reem Rashid Al Mehisni | Nuclear Engineer 



“Working in the lab was very interesting. We were first designing the satellite and planning for our system using a software. So we were just imaging it seeing it from the software. When we moved to the lab, it was where we had hands-on work and transformed the design from paper into the actual satellite. This was the most interesting part for me,” she said.

It was in the clean room also where Reem faced and overcame many challenges, some of which she can still recall vividly.

“The part that I won’t forget was when we conducted the environmental tests for the spacecraft. It was a very stressful moment. But at the same time, it had its unique feel to it as it was a great experience,” Reem told Gulf News.

“I loved how the team worked as one spirit to solve the issue on the spot within just hours. I also discovered strong points within myself being an engineer in solving problems. This is something I will never ever forget,” she added.

The KhalifaSat became was her “baby” at work while she was also carrying her first baby, literally.

“I was working in the lab while I was pregnant so she was part of the project. When I did that unforgettable thermal test, she was with me. So she knows everything about KhalifaSat,” she said with a smile.

“After I finished everything, I gave birth. She is a baby girl and she is three months old now.”

Reem is confident the KhalifaSat will be a successful mission for the UAE. The feeling of excitement seeing the satellite ready for launch is very rewarding.

The H-IIA rocket that will be launching KhalifaSat into orbit. Courtesy: Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre

She hopes other young Emiratis would also consider getting into space tech engineering, too.

“They can succeed in anything they want to be if they’re working sincerely. They just have to be sincere with their work. It’s a very interesting field and it’s really where they can apply their engineering skills and knowledge. It’s not routine at all. Every project has its uniqueness. It’s like an adventure every day. The challenges are not always the same. So it’s like every day you’re discovering yourself getting stronger and excelling in this field.”



Youth in UAE react to KhalifaSat milestone

Latifa Al Nuaimi, 18, Higher Colleges Technology
“The launching of KhalifaSat is a big pride and honour for our country, it sends a very good message about the UAE to the rest of world and shows our positive contributions to benefit and help others. What makes this satellite even more special is that it was also completely built by Emiratis; this again is a big honour for us because we have created our own satellite and are now sending it out to space. This shows that we are capable of achieving anything, especially the youth.”

Shamma Fahad Al Thehli, 18, Zayed University
“KhalifaSat is a great innovation for our country, it’s a major achievement that has required a lot of dedication and effort. This project illustrates how the UAE truly embraces the culture of innovation and forward thinking. A lot of young people were also involved in building this satellite which is also a great thing. The largest group in the UAE are young people below the age of 35 and our leadership have always shown a lot of faith in providing us with what we need to help our country, and this programme is an example of that.”

Saeed Salah Al Qubaisi, 18, Zayed University
“We are very proud of this accomplishment – KhalifaSat will only be the start because after this experience we are going to learn more and keep improving for even bigger projects. This is a big inspiration to all of us in the country and will drive us to do more as young people. If you look at the UAE, we are a small country, but that hasn’t stopped us from achieving our ambitions. This will be good for us and the region as well and hopefully, it will motivate other countries.”

Tesnim Hatab, American-Lebanese, 21, Abu Dhabi University
“KhalifaSat shows that the Arab world is capable of innovation and major scientific endeavours. If we look at history, we see that the Arab and Muslim world brought many great breakthroughs in science and astronomy, and so a major project like this is rekindling that spirit. For young people in the Arab world, this can act as a big inspiration; they will see the launch on the news and all over social media and know that this is real, that in the Arab world we can do such great things like sending our own satellite into space.”

Hiba Ramadan, Palestinian, 20, Abu Dhabi University
“KhalifaSat will inspire young Arabs across our region. It shows that young Arabs can do big things in science and technology and so this is very good news for not just the UAE but also for the Arab world. News from our part of the world is often negative and so it’s nice to have a good story coming out, something that can motivate our next generation to do better.”

Compiled by Sami Zataari, Staff Reporter