Dubai touches the outer limits

It sounds like an exciting place to visit, Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology.

Driving off the Al Khawaneej Road in Dubai and steering towards a huge receiving dish – the only landmark for miles – the anticipation builds gradually and it is hard to hide Hollywood-inspired expectations.

The drive to EIAST is followed by a dash into the air-conditioned corridors of its two-storey centre where Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori stands proudly. The 37-year-old Director General of Dubai's space mission is on a natural high.

EIAST has just launched the emirate's first remote-sensing satellite, DubaiSat-1, at a cost of Dh184 million, and the first images from the orbiter are expected any time soon.

"The goods news, and something we are very proud of, is that while it took similar satellites, launched a few weeks before us, three days to get the first contact, we got ours within hours," said Al Mansoori.

The "strategy room" on the right contains a group of scientists huddled over some papers. A man strolls into the conference room with a DubaiSat-1 model and is followed by cries of "you better not drop it" from the command centre.

"Please ensure you do not take pictures of all the information displayed here," Al Mansoori warned Emirates Business's photographer. "This is extremely sensitive stuff."

Behind him, a gigantic screen displays acres of satellite data that he reads with an ease equal to his daily recitals of the alphabet with his 22-month-old son. On the right is a digital timer with millisecond readings.

"Where are the satellite images? All in good time," he said?. "The first images have come to us but they will not be the best. You have to fine tune and develop them, so within a month you get the best pictures."

Picking up on the discomfort of the other scientists, unnerved by Emirates Business's questions and camera flashes, Al Mansoori moves up to his first floor office. BlackBerry off, he throws a contented glance at the huge receiving dish on top of the building.

"These are unprecedented times," he said. "The most important thing is that in less than five years we will be able to build satellites here in Dubai, not only for us but for other countries too.

"We are talking about know-how. Through the graduate institute for scientific research and through the facilities here we are now poised to contribute so much to the country and the international community."

He accepts EIAST is a new starter in an established global business, but insists this will not affect its competitiveness. Space technology is the one area where even the recent past serves as old research.

"It always starts where others ended," he said. "We have been through that process. By the third or fourth satellite we'll be ready to build them here. [DubaiSat-1 was built in South Korea.]

"We have the capability and our engineers are designing the satellites now so the patents and designs will all be ours."

These patents and cutting-edge technologies will feature first on DubaiSat-2, which is on course for a 2012 launch and will carry a heavier commercial load than its predecessor.

"DubaiSat-2 and other future projects will have the specifications and features that will serve a wider range of clients and stakeholders," he said.

"And if it's not a wider range, it will be more specialised. I'm confident all our satellites will be commercial successes. EIAST itself has been a very successful model."

The seamless launch of DubaiSat-1 successfully implemented the strategic plan of the Dubai and federal governments to build a knowledge-based economy, and drew great interest from the region. As Mansoori nurses an eye reddened by shamal sands, he talks about several upcoming collaborations.

"There is a lot of talk on the Arab level and on the GCC level. We're looking at joint space programmes through international collaborations. These will come very shortly," he said.

"Any satellite has research and commercial as a part of it. Commercial doesn't have to be telecommunications or media. It could provide information on weather. If we take such information from international satellites we have to pay for it. Now we won't have to.

"We work in the area of science and technology so most applications will be in that area because our key focus is on development and the environment," said Al Mansoori.

Images from DubaiSat-1 will be used for developing urban planning, scientific research, telecommunications, transportation, civil engineering and constructions, mapping and geographical information.

And as this space mission continues, the UAE could also send an Emirati to the moon in 10 years, Mansoori added.

"I would love to have it," said Al Mansoori. "When it comes to our space mission we are there, so the Moon mission could be something of the future. When you send someone to the Moon or a space station you are contributing globally. We should be able to see an Emirati on the moon in 10 years."

For newcomers in the field, paying off a Dh184m investment is quite a daunting task, and the harsh fact that launch failures are a reality did not make the prospect any easier. Yet Al Mansoori and his team worked on, mindful of all possible eventualities.

"Our job is to make sure the satellite is perfect. DubaiSat-1 was ready long before the launch but for different technical and organisational reasons it was delayed, not from our side though. But on the other hand, this calculated risk prevents you from losing.

"If there is a failure at launch there is nothing you can do, it can happen in any country. But we as Emiratis would not be that sad because the three years' work and the learning, the process gave us, were invaluable. We would be sad if we simply bought a satellite, launched it and it failed. Then you've lost all the money.

"In DubaiSat-1's case, people were involved in setting the specifications, contributing and learning, which gradually takes us towards manufacturing, so the loss [from a failed launch] is not as great as buying and failing."

The space industry is a great place to be, Al Mansoori said. It is visionary and the whole world should be run in a similar fashion.

"There is full transparency in this industry and there is no discrimination," he said.

"Any satellite, any ground station, is adding value to the entire industry. All other boundaries vanish, whether political or social.

"In this arena of science and technology there is more collaboration and an increased willingness to give. You wish that the whole world was run that way."

As the interview concludes, an image of The Palm Jebel Ali is brought into the office. It's the first from DubaiSat-1. An air of pride sweeps the room. Al Mansoori smiled: "And so it begins."

 

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