Created in 2014, the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) is the space agency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country composed of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.
The UAE Space Program
At first the UAE proposed in 2008 to create a civilian space agency common to several countries of the Arabian Peninsula, similar to the European Space Agency. The main interest of such an agency was to reduce the costs of launching satellites and to create a research center that would bring together researchers and scientists from all over the region.
However, few discussions followed this proposal and this project was therefore abandoned, probably due to other countries’ lack of interest in this field. In 2014, the UAE ended up founding their own space agency and establishing partnership with the French and British space agencies.
Having just entered the international scene, the UAE space agency has four main objectives: develop an internationally renowned space program, promote research and innovation in space sciences and technologies within the country, inspire young Emiratis to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and finally to create strong international cooperations with other space agencies.
Currently the UAESA revolves around two main missions. The first one is the Emirates Mars mission, led by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. The Hope orbiter was launched during Mars’ last launch window on July 19, 2020. The mission of the Hope space probe will be to study the daily and seasonal weather cycles of Mars as well as the variations of the weather in the different regions of the planet. It will also collect data to try to understand how the Martian atmosphere has eroded and evaporated. The recovered data will be shared freely with more than 200 insistions worldwide.
The second mission is the Emirates Lunar Mission. On September 29, 2020, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the first UAE uncrewed mission to the Moon for 2024. The mission will consist of sending a rover named Rashid (after the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum who is considered as the builder and the moderniser of Dubai) to explore unknown areas of the Moon. This program follows the worldwide trend of returning to the Moon, whether by sending rovers or by the soon to be return of man on our satellite.
Whereas the Hope Mars Mission was built in the US by both US and Emirati engineers, the lunar mission is entirely design, develop and conduct by the UAE. It will explore the lunar surface by studying the lunar soil, its formation, its components and its thermal properties. It will also allow the UAE Space Agency to test new robotic, navigation and communication technologies.
If the UAE can successfully complete this mission, it will demonstrate an important technical capacity to develop and conduct space missions on the Moon, as it is no easy thing. As of today, only three countries have successfully landed on the Moon: the United States, the Soviet Union and China. A lot of countries have tried but failed to do so, the latest being India Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019.
Space Tourism: A New Economic Sector?
United Arab Emirates have seen their economy grow at an exponential rate these last decades thanks to three main economic sectors. Between 2000 and 2018, the country’s Gross Domestic Product grew by almost 4% every year.
The three pillars of UAE economy are: business and finance, oil and gas and tourism. The tourism sector keeps progressing in this country where everything is done to promote it and attract tourists. Dubai has been one of the most popular destinations for several years. But the oil and gas sector is starting to decline, and will no longer be seen as an attractive sector in a few years due to resource depletion. This decline has also been greatly accentuated with the Covid crisis.
The UAE are then looking for new promising sectors to diversify their economy in order to remain an economic power: space tourism could well be one of these new sectors. Thus in March 2019, UAESA signed a memorandum with the Abu Dhabi Airports Company to potentially use the Al Ain International Airport as a future space port.
Furthermore, as proof of the interest shown by the UAE in space tourism, the country is one of the principal investors and owners of Virgin Galactic, one of the most advanced private companies in the development of space tourism. Hence the memorandum of March 2019 represents a major opportunity for Virgin Galactic by providing it with a spaceport.
The UAE Space Law
Due to its growing space business sector, the UAE Space Agency announced on February 24, 2020, a new space law in order to create a legislative and regulatory environment for the national space sector.
The main goal of implementing a new space law is to build a strong and sustainable UAE space sector as well as to adhere to International treaties, a necessity especially if the UAE wants to expand its regional and international presence and leadership in space activities and exploration.
Dr. Ahmed Al Falasi explained that “The new law regulates space activities to facilitate the development of a prosperous and safe space sector in the UAE, which realises our wise leadership’s vision for the sector“. UAE space law is in line with the principles set by the UAE Visions 2021, which are to create a more diversified and sustainable economy based on knowledge and innovation.
To regulate the new space activities sector, the law is divided in 9 chapters and contains 54 articles. It lays down many rules, in particular on the issuing of space activity permits, for the registration of space objects and vehicles, but also rules about responsibility and insurance regulation, space accidents regulation, the utilisation of space resources and the management of space debris.
The National Space Policy asserts the UAE recognition of the right of all nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of humanity.
Despite a very recent space program, the United Arab Emirates is already starting to be one of the most serious and advanced countries in the field of space activities, at least in the region of the Arabian Peninsula. If the missions to Mars and the Moon prove to be successful, the country will surely be part of the closed club of space powers. What sets the country apart from the others is that it plans its space program in the very long term. Indeed, it was predicted that in the early 2100s, the UAE will establish a human colony on Mars.
In the short term, the 2020 decade already seems to be promising for the United Arab Emirates.