Racing past the moon

Space programmes in the GCC are moving to a new level.

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Space cube

Space may be the final frontier, but Arab nations are very determined to reach it and explore what lies beyond. At the forefront is the UAE. In July last year, the country announced the creation of a UAE space agency and its plans to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021, to coincide with the country’s 50th anniversary.

With that move UAE, the first in the Arab world, shifted its focus from “traditional” satellite technology to space exploration and joined the exclusive club of just a handful of countries or regions with space programmes to explore the Red planet. These include Japan, China, India, Canada, Russia, the US and Europe, but only the US, Russia, Europe and India have succeeded in placing their satellites in orbit around Mars.

Investments into commercial and scientific space projects in the UAE have already exceeded USD 5.44 billion through the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) in Dubai; Abu Dhabi-based Al Yah Satellite Communications (Yahsat), a satellite data and television broadcast company; and Al Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications, a mobile satellite communications company also based in Abu Dhabi.

In November 2013, EIAST launched DubaiSat-2, while another satellite – DubaiSat-3 launch is set for 2017. Yahsat has launched two satellites for military and telecommunication purposes, and has mandated a third. Besides a number of its satellites orbiting Earth, UAE also manufactures high quality composite materials and aircraft components.

Strata, a Mubadala Aerospace subsidiary set up to create an aerospace industry in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has USD 7.5 billion worth of orders by Boeing and Airbus.

Success of Indian mission

UAE Space Agency’s director-general Dr. Mohammed Al Ahbabi recently stated the UAE won’t duplicate what other Mars missions have tried to explore. “The idea is to figure out the problems on the planet so that the mission is designed accordingly and the data collected from there is analysed,” he said, adding the space ship will be designed according to the scientific data collected and validated. The journey of the UAE’s Mars probe is anticipated to take nine months and cover over 60 million kilometres.

Unmanned probes have already visited Mars – there have been 51 Mars missions till date. NASA sent the first probe to the Red Planet on 4 November, 1964, and the latest was India’s unmanned probe, Mangalyaan, which after its 10-month journey slipped into Mars’ orbit in September 2014. The success of the Indian mission was a big inspiration to other “non-traditional” space exploring nations because the whole endeavour was cheapest so far: it cost only USD 75 million (one-tenth the cost of the Maven, the American Mars orbiter), it took just 18 months to build, and the spacecraft reached Mars on its maiden attempt.

Space exploration and space technology development are becoming increasingly important in the rising number of countries around the world – the space-related industry is estimated to be worth around USD 300 billion and growing by around 8 percent annually. Although global economic crises have dampened big space ambitions, humanity has never given up on investigating what lies beyond our planet’s border.

NASA and the European Space Agency are planning separate missions to explore the icy moons of Jupiter, China is developing a permanent space station, and Africa recently revealed its plans to send a spacecraft to the Moon. Technologies which were four decades ago available only in US are now in our pockets – today’s smartphones have more powerful computers than any of those from early space missions, which means that the amount of money needed for space exploration is within reach of more nations.

Innovation is the globalized space industry has moved into a new level, integrating telecommunications, broadcasting, navigation, weather monitoring, etc., and countries like the UAE are expecting their hard work in developing aerospace industry to contribute to the growth of science and the knowledge-based economy, and shift the nation away from its oil-based economy.

Profitable satellite industry

Such efforts can be very well paid according to US-based consulting firm A. T. Kearney’s study from last March. California reported USD 62 billion in aerospace industry revenues in 2012, holding 9 percent of the global market and 21 percent of the US market. Thanks to its aerospace industry, more than half a million Californians are employed – 203,000 directly in commercial, military, and civilian aerospace industries and 307,000 indirectly in related industries such as finance, real estate, construction, and transportation.

Aerospace is also a major source of tax revenue with wages rating in the top three percent of all industries; California generates USD 2.9 billion in personal income tax revenue associated with direct and indirect employment.

The study stated the aerospace industry is one of California’s largest industries, with annual revenues equal to the prominent agriculture and entertainment industries combined. Including the USD 38.8 billion in indirect revenues it feeds to adjacent industries, the industry’s total economic impact is more than USD 100 billion.

It is not just the UAE, who is at the time pushing for a Pan-Arab space programme, that is developing an aerospace industry in the GCC region. Qatar and Saudi Arabia both have experience in the field. In Qatar, the leading company is satellite-oriented Es’hailSat, which is preparing for the launch of its second satellite Es’hail 2 from Cape Canaveral in Florida end of 2016. The satellite, expected to cost between USD 250 and USD 500 million, will be carried into Earth’s orbit by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) rocket Falcon 9.

The company is also finalizing design and construction of Qatar’s first teleport facility. The teleport will be built on a green field site north of Doha, and is designed from the outset to allow for significant future growth. The teleport will allow Es’hailSat to control its second satellite from Qatar. The first satellite Es’hail 1 was launched in 2013 and is controlled from Paris, providing television, voice, Internet, corporate and government services across the MENA region.

Qatar is boosting its space exploration program in a bid to discover more planets, and setting up new observatories in Asia, Europe and America. Moreover, in 2012 Qatar announced a USD 3.3 billion Aerospace City project in Al –Khor, but it was eventually put on hold. Saudi Arabia has so far launched 13 satellites; the last one was launched in June 2014 from the Russian launch base in Yasny.

Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arbsat) has recently announced that it will invest USD 2.5 billion to launch five new sixth generation satellites in 2015. The satellite industry is costly, but profitable – it is forecasted that commercial satellite capacity will rise to USD 17.2 billion in 2020 from USD 10.1 billion in 2010.

Space tourism

The first Middle Eastern space programme was established in Lebanon in the 1960s. Today several countries in the MENA region have active satellites and space agencies, including Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. Iran has launched several satellites, successfully, sent two monkeys into space in 2013, and has recently unveiled a mock prototype of its first domestically manufactured spacecraft that is capable of taking astronauts into space. There is also space tourism.

In Abu Dhabi, government-backed Aabar investments has invested about USD 300 million in Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, which is developing the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle. There are plans to establish a spaceport in the UAE from which SpaceShipTwo would fly, and according to Branson, it can happen already in 2016.

Space tourism is nearing reality, despite some serious setbacks and accidents. It is estimated that the value of commercial space tourism flights will reach USD 1.6 billion over the first 10 years, so spaceports are emerging across the globe. The average ticket price to get a glimpse of the vast emptiness of space will cost you around USD 100,000.

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