With the failure of Iran’s Zafar 1 satellite launch last week, global attention was drawn to a lesser-known aspect of the region’s current rivalries: the Gulf’s very own space race.
While sanctions-hit Tehran has been pursuing a program of satellites sent into space by domestically-built rockets, its neighbor on the other side of the waterway — the United Arab Emirates — has taken a fast-tracked approach, collaborating with Eastern and Western allies to set up a space program of its own.
Harnessing recent developments in space technology, the privatization and commercialization of the global space sector, and the eager contracting of various space agencies, corporations, and academic institutes, the UAE has become a front-runner amongst smaller nations joining the space race.
After a failed attempt in 2019, the UAE plans next month to launch its military, Falcon Eye 2 satellite via a Soyuz rocket, a product of the Euro-Russian company Starsem and French commercial aerospace company Arianespace, operating under a consortium led by Airbus’s Airbus and Space division.
The reconnaissance and surveillance satellite, according to manufacturer Thales, is designed to provide the Emirati military, sometimes dubbed ‘Little Sparta’ for its interventions as far afield as the Horn of Africa, with “the most advanced optics that France has ever sold to another country.”
In the past half-decade, the Emirates’ civilian space program has meanwhile put a cluster of satellites in orbit and sent its first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, to the International Space Station and back.
The UAE Space Agency, founded in 2014, now plans to launch a mission to Mars, the Hope probe, scheduled for July this year.
“Our journey into space is ongoing and still in the beginnings,” Sheikh Mohammed, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, told Emiratis in December 2019. Indeed, the Emirates plans to send more astronauts to the ISS in the years to come, and has set is sights on an inhabited colony on Mars by 2117.
Driving these sky-high ambitions is an earth-bound incentive: a growing impetus for the UAE to diversify its economy.
Still highly dependent on oil and gas revenues, this need to diversify was underscored recently, as oil prices fell in the wake of the coronavirus. London-based Capital Economics estimates the UAE’s economy grew at just 1.5% in 2019.
The hope is that investing in high-tech space ventures will help the Emirates develop high-tech industries that can reduce dependency on oil and gas.
“Space creates a huge knowledge base that affects every other sector,” Dr Prashanth Marpu, Associate Professor and manager of the YahSat Space Lab at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, told Asia Times.
“It’s not only about going to Mars, but also about spinning the wheel of development right here. The UAE space program has already created a huge interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields among school students.”
The enthusiasm the UAE’s first astronaut generated saw over 1,000 Emiratis apply to be the next citizen in space within the first hour of open applications, the government reported.
“More countries have been recognizing the societal and economic benefits of space in recent years,” said Dr Luigi Scatteia, a partner in PwC France, Global PwC Space Practice Leader.
“This is in, for example, skill-set creation, the development of a knowledge-based society and in inspiring young people to study science and technology.”
In the last decade, 13 countries have launched their own space programs. These agencies are able to leverage recent changes in technology, such as digitization and miniaturization, that have made satellites smaller and thus space launches less costly.
“Space has become much more pervasive and cheaper,” Scatteia told Asia Times. “Combine these two factors and you have the how and why more countries are making an effort in space and launching space agencies.”
Worldwide, governments like Abu Dhabi, as well as private companies, spent a total of $415 billion in 2018 alone on satellite-based entertainment, weather forecasting and other civilian services, according to the Colorado-based Space Foundation.
By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates the global civilian space sector could be worth $1 trillion.
The space industry has also become much more globalized and commercialized in recent years.
The Dubai-based Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, for example, collaborated with South Korea’s Satrec to launch its first satellite, DubaiSat-1, from the Baikonur site in Kazakhstan in 2009. This does remote sensing of the Earth for private and academic institutions.
YahSat, meanwhile, launched its first satellite — the YahSat-1A communications satellite — in 2011 onboard an Arianespace rocket.
The Hope Mars shot, designed to track weather systems on the Red Planet, will be launched in July this year by a Japanese rocket. It is also being developed by EIAST’s successor, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, in partnership with the University of Colorado, Arizona State University and the University of California (Berkley).
US companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman have signed partnerships with Emirati institutions such as Khalifa University, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) and UAE University, providing expertise for space engineering programs aiming to educate a new generation of Emirati space sector hopefuls.
The new generation of satellites that the UAE space program is developing, known as CubeSats or nanosats, are tiny by comparison with traditional models. As an example, the first UAE CubeSats launched, Nayif-1 designed by AUS, and MYSat-1 designed by Khalifa University, weighed roughly 1kg, while DubaiSat-1 weighed 200kg.
CubeSats can also be deployed in clusters, or “constellations” of several small units working together.
These have been the subject of recent controversy after US entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that his SpaceX company had plans to launch some 12,000 StarLink broadband internet mini-satellites by the mid-2020s.
Astronomers fear these will block out areas of the night’s sky from observation, while another concern is that they will add to the growing problem of space junk.
A March 2019 European Space Agency report estimates there are around 129 million pieces of man-made debris already in space orbit, although 128 million of these are smaller than 1cm in diameter.
The current UAE satellites should not add to this problem, says YahSat Space Lab manager Marpu, as they are in low Earth orbit.
“If the satellite is at less than 500km above the Earth’s surface, it usually decays in around five years,” Marpu told Asia Times, meaning that they will drop out of orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The issue does, however, highlight the current lack of any global regulation of space, with SpaceX’s plans receiving the go-ahead from the US Federal Telecommunications Authority, rather than any international body.
The UAE, with its recently announced National Space Policy and National Space Strategy, has meanwhile created a regulatory framework of its own.
“This is also part of the UAE’s strategy to encourage international companies to set up shop there,” said Scatteia.
Recently-announced Emirati regulations on asteroid mining, for example, allow full ownership of space resources to whoever recovers them.
Until now, there is a lack of evidence that investment in space by smaller, or developing nations leads to the kinds of economic knock-on effects advocates claim.
“This is a big question,” said Scatteia. “While we have many studies of countries in Europe that invested in space and saw the benefits, we naturally don’t have ex-post assessments on emerging space nations.”
Currently, Emiratis graduating from the country’s university space programs outnumber the jobs available locally, with a local space industry “ecosphere’ yet to fully develop.
Yet, these are still very early days.
“You have to bear in mind that for space, you need to be able to design and build systems that will not fail, that can survive in very harsh conditions,” said Marpu.
“That’s a lot like the UAE itself. Most of the problems in space also apply here, because of the tough environment and conditions.”
Those include temperatures reaching 49°C (120°F) and winter lows in the desert hovering just over freezing.
The Emirate’s desert landscape might, therefore, make it the ideal place for a space sector, for, “if it will work on the Moon or Mars,” added Marpu, “it’s pretty much bound to work in the UAE.”