We have lift-off: The Middle East gets with the space program as it marks World Space Week

The UAE Space Agency is planning a mission to Mars. (Supplied photo)
Updated 07 October 2018
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We have lift-off: The Middle East gets with the space program as it marks World Space Week

  • We look at the region’s achievements in space, including the first Arab and first Muslim astronaut, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman
  • Countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are investing in the space sector as a way of diversifying their oil economies

DUBAI: Space enthusiasts and experts have planned more than 3,700 events in 80 countries to mark World Space Week, which begins and ends every year with two dates significant to the start of the first space age: On Oct. 4, 1957, the date Russia launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, and on Oct. 10, 1967, an international space treaty came into effect. 

But as the world moves into the second space age, it won’t be long before the Middle East has its own set of milestones to mark. 

Space science, mathematics, engineering and technology are increasingly gaining ground across the region. And although the call in 2008 to establish a pan-Arab space agency has not progressed as much as many had hoped, experts say the idea led to other positive developments, such as the establishment of the UAE Space Agency in 2014. 

The UAE has quickly established itself as a global player on space-related matters, with other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, closely following suit. 

“With the Kingdom announcing last year it is investing $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and its spinoff companies, it too is returning to reboot its now decades-old space program, that most notably had Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, the first royal astronaut and the first Arab Muslim, to fly in outer space in 1985,” said Matthew Cochran, chairman of the Defense Services Marketing Council, an Abu Dhabi-based network of partnerships related to regional defense, space and security marketing. “The region is primarily dominated by the UAE Space Program, being the most relevant and mature in 2018 with its Mars mission and astronaut programs.” 

Scientists at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh have manufactured two space satellites so far. (SPA)

Last year, six countries – Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Bahrain – kicked off talks related to space. This year, Sudan, Oman and Kuwait joined the group. Cochran believes the main challenge facing the region is the constant requirement to travel outside the Middle East for relatively simple launches of CubeSats. “Having a launch capability for peaceful space programs from the UAE or the GCC is a must in the short term,” he said. “The space program in the UAE is vital as it provides the reach goals that combine all industries, governments and academic programs behind visionary goals. It also provides the velocity for the regional shifts as major players in the space and aerospace industry.” 

He spoke of the UAE’s space program as a beacon of hope and prosperity for the planet as the human race strives to explore deep space with global partners. But more work needs to be done to achieve the ultimate goal of creating an Arab space agency. 

“The Middle East, and particularly the UAE, is actively pursuing involvement in the space sector,” said Francesco Arneodo, associate dean of science and associate professor of physics at New York University – Abu Dhabi. “The progress has been very fast, with important initiatives like the ambitious Mars Mission, that foresees an orbiter around Mars in 2021, the establishment of the UAE Space Agency and the organization of international events.”

He said the agency is working on involving local and international institutes, including universities, research institutions and companies, to lay the foundations of a durable and productive space sector. 

“Access to space is often seen as a benchmark for the technological development of a country,” he said. “Putting a satellite in orbit nowadays costs much less than 10 to 20 years ago, and the diffusion of relatively cheap micro-satellites, among which the CubeSats – which are small, high-tech cubes of 10sqcm – offers an ideal platform for training and prototyping, a platform that is also becoming accessible to undergraduate students. 

“However, if the goal is to establish a source of sustained innovation, and eventually of revenue, it should not be forgotten that this comes normally as the last step of a complex system that includes basic research that scientists do as an important element.”

And with the UAE’s plans to send the Arab world’s first mission to Mars through its Amal (Hope) probe by 2021, and Saudi working on developing satellite technologies for use in remote sensing and space communications, time is pressing. “It’s really exciting to see how fast the Middle East region is adopting space exploration activities,” said Bas Lansdorp, chief executive at Mars One in the Netherlands. “The world is becoming more and more aware that space is not just a great way to inspire, but also a business.”

As Gulf countries gradually shift their economies away from oil, building national capacity in the space sector can significantly contribute to meeting the countries’ missions. “The UAE’s government built the infrastructure and heavily invested in this sector as it will allow it to be a pioneer in this vital field,” said Dr Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University. “Having the UAE Space Agency will help the country to structure and govern this sector in a proper way. The Emirates implemented the best practices in forming the agency.” 

Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space.

He said establishing a space agency in every country is crucial to lead the sector and further advance civilization. “This will help the region become the hub of advanced research in space while meeting the goals of the UAE’s Centennial 2071 project, for instance,” Dr Murad said. “The Middle East is advancing in adopting space and the sector has become a dream for every student. Different space-related entities have worked to pave the way to build state-of-the-art infrastructure that will help researchers conduct their work in issues and challenges associated with space.” 

The region’s educational sector is also undergoing massive revamping to be able to adapt to changing times, with new and more focused curricula and programs focusing on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and space. 

UAE University is no exception, with its physics department offering a new space science track this fall. Its college of science is also working on developing a minor in space science, which will be open to all students at the university. It is also working with other colleges to develop a graduate program in space science and technology. 

“The main challenges that face the region will be limited to recruiting high-caliber researchers in the field of space in order to transfer the best practices of space to the region,” Dr Murad added. “Rapid developments in technology also pose challenges to the Middle East, but space is extremely important for regional countries because it is one of the main pillars that will help them diversify their economy in the long run.”


UN calls for Hodeidah ceasefire as momentum gathers for Yemen peace talks

Updated 23 min 46 sec ago
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UN calls for Hodeidah ceasefire as momentum gathers for Yemen peace talks

  • Flurry of diplomacy to calm tensions ahead of a return to UN-backed talks
  • Yemeni military says 147 Houthis were killed in last 24 hours despite reports of reduced fighting

LONDON: The United Nations’ aid chief called Tuesday for a ceasefire around Hodeidah amid reports that fighting in the Yemeni city had reduced.

The appeal came amid a flurry of diplomacy to calm tensions ahead of a return to UN-backed talks to try and end the conflict.

Fighting intensified around Hodeidah last week as pro-government troops, supported by the Arab coalition, made advances around the port against the Iran-backed Houthi militia.

AP reported that an informal agreement to reduce hostilities in and around Hodeidah had taken hold in the last two days, in what could be a prelude to peace talks.

However, nearly 147 Houthi militants were killed and dozens wounded in the last 24 hours during battles with government troops, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday.

The ministry said troops advanced in a number of neighborhoods, securing areas and a school and businesses from the Houthis.

Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, has become the main focus of the conflict, which started in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa.

With dire warnings over the humanitarian situation in the county, pressure is growing for a negotiated end to the conflict. The United States has called for a ceasefire and talks on ending the war while Britain has said it is preparing a Security Council draft resolution that would pave the way to peace talks.

On Tuesday, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called for a cessation of hostilities, particularly “around all the infrastructure and facilities on which the aid operation and commercial importers rely.”

The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the reduction of clashes and said it was a “crucial step” to prevent further humanitarian suffering.

“I am confident that the parties are ready to work on a political solution and am encouraged by the constructive engagement received from all sides,” he said.

Sweden is ready to host peace talks as soon as possible to try and negotiate an end to the war in Yemen, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said on Tuesday.

“We are preparing ourselves to, when the parties are ready, welcome them in Sweden,” she said.

Wallstrom said she hoped the negotiations could begin this month.

UN talks in Geneva to end the war, which has killed nearly 10,000 people, collapsed when the Houthis refused to attend.