Moon, Mars and beyond: the UAE makes an ambitious foray into space

The Gulf nation has earmarked a National Space Fund of AED 3 billion (₹6,600 crore) ‘to consolidate its position in the space sector’

Updated - July 07, 2023 07:50 am IST

Published - July 06, 2023 11:17 pm IST - DUBAI

Students and scientists at an event, at the Mohamed Bin Rashid University in Dubai, joined via video link by astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. 

Students and scientists at an event, at the Mohamed Bin Rashid University in Dubai, joined via video link by astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi.  | Photo Credit: REUTERS

This year for Id al Adha or Bakrid, residents of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received greetings in Arabic from a well-wisher in outer space — astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who is on a six-month long mission to the International Space Station. Clad in a kandura (the traditional outfit for Emirati men), just as he had done for Id al Fitr over a month ago, Mr. Al Neyadi floated into the Cupola Observatory of the International Space Station (ISS), holding little Suhail, the stuffed toy mascot of Mohammed bin Rashid Research Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, the agency that is behind the UAE Astronaut Programme.

The Sultan of Space, as he is called, has been enlightening his people with social media posts about life in space, ham radio calls and live interactions with students and officials apart from images, including of Mecca and the Dubai coastline. The 16 sunsets and sunrises visible daily from the orbiting laboratory, the difficulty of observing the Ramadan fast on space were all interesting tidbits of information for his compatriots on the earth.

Mr. Al Neyadi is part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 Mission that blasted off to space on March 2 in a bid to study combustion in microgravity, cardiovascular research, among others. Four months into the mission, he has many firsts to his credit — the first Arab astronaut to embark on a long-duration space mission, the first Arab astronaut to conduct a spacewalk outside the ISS and the first astronaut to perform the martial art jiu-jitsu in space.

The journey

The 42-year-old is the second Emirati astronaut in space after Hazza Al Mansouri’s journey to space in 2019. The extra-terrestrial journey of Arab youth is part of the UAE’s larger vision to become a global power in space exploration and channel its younger generation towards science and technology. The leadership — primarily President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum — is also aware of the need to migrate to a post-oil economy, where tourism and space programmes can play a big role. In fact, going by the UAE’s hard-sell of tourism, it could also mean a future business in space tourism as hinted by MBRSC director general Salem al Marri.

The nation earmarked a National Space Fund of AED 3 billion (₹6,600 crore) fund through the UAE Space Agency in 2022 “to build national capabilities and competencies, raise the economic contribution to diversifying the national economy, and consolidate the UAE’s position in the space sector”. The fund’s first project is a constellation of advanced remote sensing satellites using radar technologies to provide unparalleled imaging capabilities. UAE-built satellites such as Khalifasat are already playing a vital role in urban planning and building smart cities of the future for the Gulf state.

A bouquet of projects

The first female Emirati astronaut Nora al Matrooshi was selected from among 4,305 applicants to receive training at NASA as part of the UAE Astronaut Programme launched in 2017, one of the projects managed by the MBRSC under the National Space Programme. The Arab Space Pioneers programme, announced in 2020, is another; the three-year intensive training programme “incubates young talents and expands their career prospects in the region’s emerging space technologies”.

The Arab Space Pioneers programme was launched in the run-up to the launch of the Hope Probe to Mars on July 20, 2020, the first-ever Arab mission to the Red Planet. The much-touted Emirates Mars Mission, which coincided with the country’s golden jubilee celebrations in 2021, aimed to “spark an Arab exploration of outer space, build a space industry in the region and advance regional and national capabilities in this sector”, according to the government.

The unmanned Hope Probe, designed and developed at the MBRSC and launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre, entered the Martian orbit on February 9, 2021 to study the planet’s atmosphere and climate for a full Martian year (687 Earth days). The UAE’s grandiose plan is to build the first human settlement on Mars by 2117 in collaboration with major international space institutions.

The MBRSC has lined up a slew of ambitious projects for the coming decades — the Emirates Lunar Mission 2024, Emirates Interplanetary Mission 2028, as well as the Mars 2117 programme. After the first Emirati lunar rover ‘Rashid’ — named after the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, builder of modern Dubai — reportedly crashed this April during a lunar landing, the Dubai Ruler announced that Rashid 2 will be developed and sent to space. If it succeeds, the UAE will become the first Arab country and the fourth after the U.S., Russia and China to land on the moon.

The latest among the UAE’s futuristic projects is the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt. It will deploy an explorer in six years’ time that will fly by the earth, Mars and six asteroids and then have a planned landing on the final asteroid, Justicia, in 2034.

Gulf and Space

The UAE is not alone in channelling money and human resources into space. Bahrain and Kuwait have launched satellites while Oman plans to build the region’s first spaceport. The GCC’s largest economy, Saudi Arabia, which lifted a ban on women drivers in 2018, has leapfrogged to send the first female Arab astronaut to space. In 2020, Saudi Arabia had announced plans to invest $2.1 billion into its space programme as part of its Vision 2030 reform agenda. The UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are also signatories of the U.S.-authored Artemis Accords for crewed exploration of the Moon by 2024.

For the UAE, the space programme is not merely about missions. It is a means to create jobs, and so far the sector has provided over 3,200 jobs. More than 57 space companies and five space science research centres operate in the country. “The word ‘impossible’ does not exist in our dictionary,” UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had remarked in 2018. In the space programme, the Emiratis seem to be following this motto.

Roshin Mary George is an independent journalist based in the UAE

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