In an exclusive interview with GN Focus, Dr Mohammad Al Ahbabi, Director General, UAE Space Agency talks to Sankar Sri Pillai about what the nation’s space mission seeks to achieve in the short and long term
Please share your personal take on the UAE sending its first astronaut to the International Space Station
It is a moment of national pride, not just for me but for the whole country. This is the first Emirati astronaut in space. We know that Prince Sultan Bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from Saudi Arabia was the first Arab in space, but that was in 1985, before the International Space Station (ISS). The first Emirati to be launched into space will also be the first Arab astronaut to visit the ISS. This also proves that the UAE is committed to space — we now have an astronaut programme, we already have a number of satellites in space, we have something that is tangible, something that people can see and appreciate. For me therefore, this is a great moment and I am happy to be able witness this and be a part of this process.
The UAE space mission encompasses everything from satellite launches and astronauts being sent to space as well as exploring Mars. What does the UAE seek to achieve from its space missions in the short and long term?
We know that space programmes bring great benefits to a country. In fact there is a race to space as we speak with more than 60 countries having space agencies and programmes. The benefits may not be immediately tangible, but space holds the key for various reasons, for one strategically, as for some countries space holds the key to national security. The space programme is also important for the economy transiting into a smart economy. It holds the key to improving research and development programmes, then there are social benefits as well. Space also offers a platform for innovation, it is a model for cooperation and, more importantly, it offers the tools to inspiring generations, to raise optimism and hope and give rise to the next generation of space entrepreneurs. And all this holds true for the UAE as well, as for a long time, the UAE has identified space as part of its present and future.
The UAE is also initiating a lot of space projects to change the reality of the region. Hundreds of years ago, the Arab region inspired great discoveries in the fields of astronomy and science, which then declined. But today, an opportunity exists to bring back that golden age of discovery and the UAE wishes to showcase to the region and its people that this is now possible. The only way we can change this region is through science and technology and bring hope back to the people for a meaningful life. If we succeed in our endeavours, it is a source of encouragement for the region and its people.
Our neighbouring countries will seek inspiration as well as think, why not us?, promoting a healthy sense of competition. This is also why we established the Arab Space Cooperation Group this year, where we managed to get 11 countries from the region, including the UAE, to work together on space activities (see box). Five more nations are expected to join the group as well.
This is where we are using our capabilities, experience, network and influence within the international space community to promote space activities. The UAE has the most advanced space programme in the region, with more than $6 billion (Dh22 billion) having been invested in space, with eight projects. We have ten satellites in orbit, with between three to four more satellites expected to be launched next year, including the EMM, MeznSat, MySat 2 and probably FalconEye 2.
Again, through the UAE Space Agency, the nation is the first to have a regulatory space body in the region, so we have a regulated space sector, with a proper policy and space laws in place. We have a team of 1,500 people working in the space sector. The space agency is a team that helps coordinate space activities and gets other bodies to collaborate. So, we have three companies working on satellite programmes, then there are three universities providing space education, as well as four space research centres. The UAE Space Agency is also collaborating with the biggest space agencies globally. I was personally elected as the Vice-President of the International Astronautical Federation. We are also very active at the United Nations when it comes to space regulations and space policies.
Is space tourism a part of the UAE Space Agency’s missions in the long term? If yes, can you elaborate?
Space tourism is still in its nascent stages but is set to take off and grow as a trend. The UAE has an advantage here as we have the largest aerospace industry in the region, so it makes sense for technology to mature in this sector here and for space tourism to take off in a big way in the UAE. There are some technical challenges, but the UAE is a shareholder in one of the companies that is planning to get into space tourism, which is Virgin Galactic. It visited the UAE showing keen interest in partnering with the country in space tourism as we had some of the best facilities to initiate this, for instance our airport in Al Ain. However, there are countries that are competing with us for a share in space tourism, including Italy, the UK and Australia.
Please share some details on KhalifaSat, the first satellite to be built entirely by Emirati engineers
KhalifaSat was launched last year and was a big achievement for us, giving us confidence in the fact that we here in the UAE can not only master the use of satellites but make them as well. However, building a satellite is a process. The UAE launched its first satellite, DubaiSat, almost a decade back with the help of Korea. A team was sent from the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre to Korea to study and understand the making of components in satellite building and manufacture. This is the only way we can move forward, through knowledge sharing. Now, KhalifaSat has opened doors to allow us to fund the Arab satellite that we are calling the 813, the first project to be initiated by the Arab Space Cooperation Group (see box). The satellite is unique as it will help identify natural resources within the Arab region.
Hundreds of years ago, the Arab region inspired great discoveries in astronomy and science... an opportunity now exists to bring back that golden age.
The Hope probe is expected to enter the Martian atmosphere in 2021, the same year the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary. How did the project come about and what are its long-term goals?
The Hope project is running successfully. It is on budget and on schedule and will be launched next year. Data from the Mars mission, gathered over a number of years by the Hope probe, will be shared and analysed with more than 200 institutions and universities around the world, who will be part of the data-sharing process. It will answer critical questions for the international space community. Locally, more than 150 engineers are participating in the mission. The UAE is hoping to support similar projects in future.
What space events have been lined up in the lead-up to the UAE celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021?
The Emirates Mars Mission with the launch of the Hope probe scheduled for next year is I believe an apt way to celebrate the UAE’s 50th anniversary as the nation gets set to explore the far reaches of space. Besides, Dubai will also be hosting the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in 2020, making the UAE the first to host the prestigious annual global event in the Arab world. Countries compete to host this event and the UAE won the bid to host the IAC two years ago.
The UAE Space Agency participated in the UAE Sustainability Week in January this year. What does a sustainable space mission entail?
Firstly, space can contribute towards making life on earth sustainable by providing data on climate change. Besides, we also want space itself to be sustainable. For example, space debris is a threat to space sustainability. The more debris you have in space, the less accessible it will be for other countries, so we make sure in various ways that space can be sustainable as well.
How is the UAE Space Agency helping raise awareness in a new generation of space entrepreneurs?
We have a number of programmes that are in place that will inspire students in space entrepreneurship. I also happened to sign an MoU today with an education centre in Abu Dhabi that sees them partnering with the UAE Space Agency for workshops and engagements that will benefit students. We also sponsor students for study programmes in space research abroad and host summer camps related to space activity as well. Yet another programme that we initiated sees international astronauts visiting schools, interacting and sharing their experiences in space with the students. Of course, now we have our own Emirati astronauts who can partner with us in similar awareness programmes.
What is the Arab Space Cooperation Group?
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, attended the signing of a charter to establish the first Arab Space Cooperation Group on the first day of the Global Space Congress held in Abu Dhabi in March. The Arab Space Cooperation Group was initiated ten the UAE to include 10 other Arab nations: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. As part of its first mission, the group will develop an advanced satellite, 813, to monitor earth and its environment and climate.
After signing the charter, Shaikh Mohammad tweeted, “We have named the satellite 813, after the date that marked the beginning of prosperity for the House of Wisdom in Baghdad under the reign of Al Ma’mun, the house that once embraced scientists, translated notable texts and produced scientific capabilities.”