How the UAE space programme is driving research and international cooperation

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The UAE’s drive to develop its space research capacity will see a Mars probe launch in 2020, with the country also seeking to boost synergies with global academic institutions and space agencies, in order to strengthen human resources and enhance data sharing in the field.

On April 22 the UAE Space Agency and the Dubai-based Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) announced that preparations were 85% complete for its Mars-bound orbiter, called the Hope Probe.

The design, assembly, cameras and control functions for the instrument have been approved, and initial testing of systems and communication functionalities have been conducted. The craft will undergo additional evaluation to ensure it is ready to launch in July 2020, including five environmental tests between June and December of this year.

The primary goal of the mission – which will see the probe enter Mars’ orbit in 2021 – is to gain a deeper understanding of the Martian atmosphere. The device will measure the planet’s middle and lower atmosphere, allowing scientists to study its atmospheric evolution and compare it with that on Earth.

Three instruments being developed for the probe will support this aim: the Emirates eXploration Imager, the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer and the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer, with the last already mounted on the probe.

The Hope Probe will follow Hazza Al Mansoori, an Emirati astronaut who will be the first Arab to visit the International Space Station on September 25, returning eight days later. Once there, Al Mansoori will conduct several observational and imaging activities, and share a tour of the station in Arabic.

See also: The Report – Dubai 2019

Cooperation with international research institutes

The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), as it is also known, was first announced in 2014 with the creation of the UAE Space Agency. It has reached its current phase of development through cooperation between the MBRSC in Dubai, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California and Arizona State University.

At the launch of the partnership in 2015, there were 75 Emirati engineers leading the project, and this number is expected to grow to more than 150 by 2020.

From the outset, collaboration has also focused on boosting education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and building up a scientific talent pool through outreach schemes for young learners, as well as graduate and postgraduate students.

Recent efforts to this end include the MBRSC’s Hope Generation initiative, which was introduced on April 17. The programme seeks to increase middle- and high-school students’ interest in STEM subjects. Members of the EMM team will hold lectures, workshops and open days at schools.

Some universities in the UAE are building capacity to process the data and images the Hope Probe is expected to collect during its orbit. For example, Khalifa University’s Research Centre for Renewable Energy Mapping and Assessment is working to leverage its expertise in dust mapping and modelling to develop atmospheric modelling methodologies for Mars’ lower atmosphere, particularly the planet’s dust storms.

National Space Programme pursues synergies with Arab partners

The overarching goal of these efforts is to enhance the UAE’s contribution to the science and technology sector – a target that also underpins the UAE’s National Space Programme (NSP).

Launched in April 2017, the strategy aims to build on the platform created by the EMM by constructing the first scientific city on Mars by 2117, including a facility to design and 3D-printed buildings suited to conditions on the planet.

Funding for the project was agreed in February last year, when the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) signed a cooperation agreement with the MBRSC.

“This agreement is part of a series of agreements and steps that the [TRA’s] ICT Fund… is undertaking to train and prepare young national cadres to work in the ICT sector, including the space science sector,” Majed Al Mesmar, the chairman of the ICT Fund’s board of trustees, told media after the deal was reached.

The NSP outlines the launch of an Arab Space Discovery Programme as another of its targets, and seeks to collaborate with Arab universities and institutions to “transfer knowledge and expertise in space sciences”. Major progress was announced on March 11, when 11 Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Morocco, inked a charter to create the first Arab body for space cooperation.

Following on the heels of this news, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the MBRSC and Bahrain's National Space Science Agency in March.

The exchange of data, expertise and practical experiences in the field of satellite communications and advanced sciences is the primary goal of the pact, with the imaging collected by the Hope Probe likely to be a key feature.

“In today’s space industry, international cooperation is essential to achieving goals,” Yousuf Al Shaibani, director-general at the MBRSC, told OBG. “We try to make sure that our projects support our domestic industry, but also supplement and act as a multiplier to what is happening internationally.”

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