The leading space program in the Middle East belongs to one of its smallest countries: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 2013, the UAE has established a national space agency and made public plans to send astronauts into space and launch a mission to Mars. It’s also actively working to integrate academia with the local industry to streamline future space ventures

The UAE plans to shift from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one in the coming years. If that dream is to be realized, the country’s space program might play a leading role in stimulating innovation and growth in the technology sector. Despite being on a fast track, the UAE still has a long way to go before it can catch up to the world’s major space agencies.

Hazza Ali Almansoori, the first Emirati in space, takes part in a press conference on August 30, 2019 ahead of Expedition 61 on the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. (Image Credit: NASA/Beth Weissinger)

The UAE has set ambitious goals for the next decade. But despite a concerted effort to train local talent, significant obstacles remain as its space sector is still in its infancy. A look at the history of the space program in the UAE can provide important context moving forward.

Abu Dhabi’s Space Odyssey Begins with Satellite Development

The UAE Space Agency was established in 2013 to direct the national space program of the country. The agency creates space policies and regulations and supports the development of human capital for space projects. In addition to the space agency, the UAE has established a space research center, a university space lab, and a national space program for students to have their experiments conducted in space.

Alongside investments in the education of local talent, strategic government-to-government and public-private partnerships are key to Dhabi’s efforts to become a space power local intellectual capital deficiencies. The UAE has partnerships with the United Kingdom, France, and the United States for furthering space exploration and research. Emirati officials have also invested in private space firms like Virgin Galactic.

UAE Space Agency Chairman Ahmad Belhoul gives remarks during a post launch press conference on September 26, 2019 at the Baikonur Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. (Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In 2009, the UAE launched its first satellite, named DubaiSat-I. The low Earth orbit satellite was built in collaboration with Satrec Initiative, a South Korean satellite manufacturer. The satellite images provided by the satellite have helped the Emirati government in urban planning, infrastructure development, environmental monitoring, and disaster relief.

In 2013, the UAE launched the DubaiSat-II. This satellite was also made in South Korea, but Emirati engineers helped with the design and manufacture of the final product, composing over 70% of the project team, as compared to just 30% on DubaiSat-I. The new satellite was launched in a sun-synchronous orbit. The scientific data provided by it was also made commercially available.

In October 2018, the third UAE satellite took to space. Named KhalifaSat, the satellite was built entirely by local engineers and designers and marked a turning point in the country’s space program. The UAE now boasts the capability to design, develop and launch missions to space. KhalifaSat is a polar remote sensing satellite imaging the earth for monitoring purposes.

The UAE’s Next Destination: Mars

In July 2014, the government of UAE announced a Mars mission project named al-Amal or Hope. The mission aimed to build an unmanned probe to monitor the atmosphere of Mars with an expected launch date of 2020. The probe will be designed to tackle one of the most pressing scientific questions of the age: Why has oxygen and hydrogen been leaving the Martian atmosphere, limiting the ability of the red planet to sustain liquid lakes?

If successful, the data provided by the probe could prove to be significant in not only tracking the evolution of the atmosphere on Mars but also help scientists understand the evolution of life on earth as well.

The UAE government plans to take the mission even further. According to Emirati officials, the Hope project will also prepare for a future settlement on Mars, announced as the Mars 2117 mission. With this plan, the Arab country wants to build a scientific city on the red planet with the help of local scientists and engineers. Only a few months after the announcement, a virtual reality tour of the proposed city was made available. The UAE also plans to build a mock-up of the Martian city in the desert within a few years, reports Engadget.

The United Arab Emirates has been lobbying for a transnational space agency for the Arab world modeled on the European Space Agency since 2008. However, it remains more focused on its own national effort in space. Setting out goals for the next hundred years seems a little over-ambitious, but it could spur young Emirati professionals to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and build the indigenous human capital necessary to drive a farreaching space program.

Usman Kabir covered science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."


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