The Middle East region has become a hotspot for space technology, with a number of countries vying to get a foothold in the burgeoning new sector.
While space has long fascinated the curious for millennia, for the past fifty years it has remained the domain of the public sector.
But a new age of space technology has been ushered in by billionaires. Elon Musk, the mercurial founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc., and Jeff Bezos, the chief architect behind ecommerce giant Amazon.com Inc., and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, have emerged as trailblazers in the new space race.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is testing new frontiers with plans to send manned and unmanned rockets to outer space. Among its many ambitions is to land the first astronauts to the moon since 1972.
“SpaceX is rapidly advancing Starship development, drawing on an extensive history of launch vehicle and engine development programs,” the company said. “Since January 2020, SpaceX has built 10 Starship prototypes, with production and fidelity accelerating on each build.”
The company is also offering commercial flights to both Earth and Lunar orbit, and eventually to Mars.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” Musk said. “It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
Similarly, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company also has sky-high ambitions. In 2021, the Amazon founder, along with three companions, successfully completed the first human flight to space and back. The company has plans to operate commercial flights to space for a mass audience.
“Blue is working on this today by developing partially and fully reusable launch vehicles that are safe, low cost and serve the needs of all civil, commercial and defense customers,” according to the company.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, founded by serial entrepreneur Branson, also conducted a successful test space flight in 2021, which it says will pave the way for the next generation of astronauts.
Amid this backdrop, a number of Arab nations are also exploring space.
The Saudi Space Commission was established in 2018 to set the nascent sector’s strategies and nurture the development of the industry. Another objective is to plan, manage and finance research and development projects with the aim of developing space technology and building national capacity in Saudi Arabia.
The SSC’s has also embarked on a number of projects, including Ajyal program, aimed at nurturing national human capital in the field of space and technologies. The program encourages interest in scientific research and innovation in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
A second SSC project is involved in meeting the need for orbital slots in Saudi Arabia, and eliminate the need for leasing orbital slots from foreign players.
The SSC is one of six space agencies in the region that are keen to have a foothold in the new sector.
The UAE has enacted a space law, a national policy and a space strategy 2030 that has set itself ambitious goals. The country has already invested AED20 billion in satellite data, TV broadcast company and Al Yah Satellite Communications, a mobile satellite company.
In 2019, the country sent its first astronaut into space, Hazza Al-Mansoori to complete an eight-day scientific mission aboard the International Space Station.
“Today, we are proud to welcome the UAE’s ambassador to space, Hazza Al Mansoori, back to Earth. He carries with him knowledge, experience, and the results of scientific experiments conducted aboard the ISS,” said Hamad Obaid Al Mansoori, Chairman of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. “These experiments will enrich human knowledge, as well as the global scientific community, and pave the way for Arab youth to have new dreams and ambitions in this leading sector.”
An Emirates Lunar Mission is planned for 2025, with the aim to develop a rover, named Rashid in honour of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Ruler of Dubai, to study various aspects such as thermal properties of the lunar surface.
The UAE also has ambitions to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars, and is setting its sights well into the future as well, with a plan for a human settlement on the red planet by 2117.
“In line with Mars 2117 Strategy, which seeks to build the first settlement on Mars in the next 100 years, the UAE will build a complex of buildings called Mars Science City,” according to the UAE government. “The AED 500 million city will cover 1.9 million square feet making it the largest space-simulation city ever built.”
The UAE has also seen dramatic progress in the global space industry, with Abu Dhabi taking a stake in Virgin Galactic, and signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on space cooperation with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India and Egypt and formed the Arab Space Coordination Group in 2019 with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Morocco.©