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03 March 2024

One giant leap for the UAE

By James Reinl


By the end of next year, a 200kg piece of metal called DubaiSat-1 will be soaring around the planet 10 times faster than a speeding bullet, capturing images of the Earth’s surface.

According to the Emirati scientists behind the nation’s first civilian observation satellite, the orbiting device will not only be transmitting a stream of data, it will also be sending the message that the UAE has boldly gone into the space age.

For Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, director-general of the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), DubaiSat-1 is as much an endeavour of national pride as it is of scientific research.

“The UAE entering the space sector indicates that we are achieving our development goals,” says Al Mansoori. “It is about national pride. But more importantly, it shows that we are depending upon our own people for development. A team of Emiratis has been working on every stage of the construction of this satellite.”

Despite the lofty ambitions, experts at Satrec Initiative, the South Korean firm building the orbiter, question whether the Emiratis have really got what it takes to run a space programme.

The Korean space firm is currently building DubaiSat-1 at its headquarters. The device will blast off on a Dnepr rocket towards the end of next year courtesy of the Moscow-based launching firm International Space Company (ISC) Kosmotras.

The satellite will then take an orbit as high as 1,000km above sea level and scan the surface of the Earth, transmitting data to a 20-metre-tall receiver at a ground station in Al Awir, erected by US firm ViaSat.

The Dubai Government is estimated to be paying a combined Dh250 million for the satellite, ground station and launch. Once it is travelling 7.5km around the planet every second – a speed that will see a single orbit completed in 90 minutes – the satellite will record data and beam it back when passing above the Emirates. Collated images will be provided to government departments, traded with other satellite owners and sold to private firms, making the project self-financing within five years, says Al Mansoori.

The images will help emergency teams during sandstorms, cyclones and earthquakes, while also assisting “urban planning, aviation, port authorities, traffic and transport, even things like providing electricity, water and telecommunications” he says.

But Al Mansoori insists the satellite will never be used for spying purposes, such as gleaning information about Tehran’s military capabilities on the UAE’s three Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs – occupied by Iran since 1971.

The key to the project, says Al Mansoori, lies in the eight Emirati graduates, all in their 20s, who were handpicked to help build the satellite and control the device after launch. While DubaiSat-1 is only one small step for man – Al Mansoori describes the enterprise as one giant leap for Emiratis.

“We are calling it a ‘catalyst project’,” he says. “It is only the beginning for us. It is 100 per cent Emirati. The next step will be to build an institute for graduate research to transfer what our team has learned to others.”

One of the chosen eight, project manager Salem Humaid Saeed Ahmad Al Marri has spent 18 months in Korea learning about satellite technology and contributing to the project. “For us, the end product – the satellite – is not the goal,” says the 25-year-old, who studied business information technology at Dubai Men’s College.

“There are not many nationals you can discuss orbital physical dynamics with. The UAE needs more people in this field.”

Al Marri says working “step by step” with top satellite experts has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, adding that fellow team members have relished the challenge. “It’s just amazing that something we have put our blood, sweat and tears into will blast off into space,” he says.

“We’ve even been sitting around the satellite, wanting to scratch our names into it so that we can feel that a part of us has gone into space.”

After the launch, the ambitious team plans to run the ground station and decode data transmitted from DubaiSat-1, while simultaneously starting work on the next project, DubaiSat-2.

But while the Emirati team is hatching plans for an ongoing space programme, there remain key elements of DubaiSat-1 that need finalising before final countdown can begin.

The biggest hole in the plan is the height above the Earth at which the satellite will orbit – which is currently only known to be a “Low Earth Orbit” of between 400-1,000km above sea level.

According to Satrec Initiative’s CEO and President Sungdong Park, this is because DubaiSat-1 will be enjoying a budget blast off with several other satellites, making the trip “something like sharing a taxi ride – only the taxi can only let everyone get off at the same place”.

The Emirati team, therefore, must co-ordinate with the Dnepr rocket’s other passengers and agree upon a height that is advantageous to all parties.

As a result of this, however, the UAE team cannot say whether DubaiSat-1 will be taking close-up, detailed images of the Earth’s surface or scanning a panoramic view from 1,000km above sea level. Since scientists cannot say how detailed the images will be, it is difficult to determine whether they are suitable for EIAST’s anticipated customers.

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that satellites on lower orbits encounter far greater resistance than those further out of the Earth’s atmosphere, meaning the lifespan of DubaiSat-1 could be as short as two years or as long as eight.

Satellite guru Park has further qualms about the project, leading him to suggest that the UAE’s national pride, in the case of DubaiSat-1, could be coming before a spectacular fall.

“We are only half way through the project, so it is difficult to say whether the UAE team will be capable of running a whole programme by themselves,” says Park.

“But we do suggest they attach a few more engineers to the programme. It is hard to imagine how eight engineers will be able to manage a whole project by themselves.”

While Park is confident that his company will be able to guide the UAE team and their satellite into space, he questions whether the Emirati scientists can meet the long-term challenges of a national space programme.

“There are two factors to determine the success of this project,” he says. “The first is whether the satellite is in space and working properly – and we are confident that this will happen.

“The other side of it is how much the Dubai engineers can achieve from the programme. And, for this, I would remind you of the saying: ‘You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’.”

Orbitor History

Satellites have been around since the dawn of time because, technically, any orbiting object – including bodies like the Moon – are satellites. The idea of artificial satellites emerged in the Victorian era, with writer Jules Verne featuring such a device in his 1879 novel The Begum’s Millions.

It was not, however, until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, that man had finally breached the final frontier, prompting the space race between the Russians and the Americans.

The pace of satellite development accelerated and orbiting devices have since specialised into a variety of functions.

Like many satellites, DubaiSat-1 will orbit the Earth on an elliptical path scanning the planet’s surface. Some satellites, however, remain above a fixed point on the Earth and are usually used to relay voice, data and video transmissions.