Destination: Where no Arab has travelled before
Satellite at Mohammad bin Rashid Space Centre, Dubai
Dubai - The UAE is set to be the source of the first Arab unmanned probe to launch to Mars
In 2006, a team of four young engineers travelled to South Korea to learn how to build highly advanced space systems in the UAE.
This was the start of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) mission. Ten years later and with over 100 young Emirati scientists and engineers of an average age of 27, and 40 per cent females, the centre is set to be the source of the first Arab unmanned probe set to launch to Mars in 2021. The team aims to grow to more than 150 by 2020.
Established as Emirates Institute of Science and Technology (EIAST) in 2006, the goal was to train a core team of about 25 engineers who could bring to the UAE the base that would host a bigger team, and transfer knowledge and technology of satellite development to the young generation.
Hope Probe, as part of the Emirates Mars Mission, will officially start manufacturing and testing of prototypes after Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai gave the green light last week.
"We are strictly on schedule," Salem Al Marri, assistant director-general of Scientific and Technology Affairs at MBRSC. "The initial design work is complete and implementation will soon start."
The scientific probe aims to give a year-long study of the three layers of the Martian atmosphere to contribute to humanity's journey in sending people to the red planet.
"Other probes can give mid atmosphere at specific times of the day, but the Hope Probe will orbit around the red planet with three main instruments focused on studying the lower, mid and upper atmosphere of Mars," said Al Marri.
He added: "It is necessary to understand the holistic image of the atmosphere before sending people to the red planet safely. The probe will contribute to the global mission of discovering Mars."
With two imaging satellites, DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2, already in space after collaborating with partners in South Korea, the team is now currently working on launching the first satellite to purely be built by Emirati engineers.
Scheduled to launch in 2018 with the joint effort of over 70 engineers, Al Marri said 75 per cent of the project is complete and the team is developing the flight model. Shaikh Mohammed fixed the first piece of the final structure of the satellite that will send data and images to any found stations in the world.
Al Marri said: "DubaiSat1 and 2 provide data similar to that of Google Earth, for free to government departments in the UAE. They also provide updated and timely data anywhere in the world."
He noted that both imaging satellites supported disasters in different parts of the world in providing quick images and data to earth rescuers and insurance companies.
Khalifa Sat, however, will have a greater storage capacity and high downloading speed, making it possible to take more images in a short time.
Nationalisation of advanced technology
But the mission of the centre extends far beyond just releasing a probe to Mars or developing satellites. The goal is the nationalisation of advanced technology.
"We see advanced missions in many countries. So, for the UAE to join the global human effort of understanding space field mysteries, is inspiring," said Amer Al Sayegh, Senior Director of the Space Systems Development Department at MBRSC.
"It connects the UAE to the rest of the world because all of us are trying to answer the same questions. What we do today can benefit someone in Australia for example," noted Al Sayegh, who overlooked DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2 in South Korea before moving back to transfer knowledge to his teams in UAE. He said that although it was difficult at the beginning to share the centre's mission with applications, the team "quadrupled" after engineers came back from South Korea.
Developing technologies for space is yet a different challenge. While the UAE has advanced technologies on the ground, the team has to work on developing technologies for space that gives no room for mistakes once a project is launched in space.
The strong link between the team in South Korea and UAE allowed for continuous share of knowledge and communication to establish and prepare the facilities of the centre. Now the team has experts in different systems.
"It showed that the experience of the past 10 years was great not only in terms of knowledge impact, but knowledge sharing and documenting what we have learned," noted Al Sayegh.
The first step that the UAE has taken in space was establishing the centre. The next step of developing an ecosystem around space will be the most challenging part.
"At the beginning, when any country joins a new field, it is about pride. But now it has to be environmentally, socially and economically benefitting," said Al Sayegh.
He stressed on the involvement of many members from different sectors. "In space, you need to do everything at its best, which is why you need companies to make specific materials. We have been in touch with private companies who are developing some equipment and providing us with materials to support."
The space programme is currently working with universities through research and educational programmes. Space teams have crossed advanced levels in educating government sector about benefits of space missions.
Sustainability is key
Just like the UAE has been known around the world for its over-the-top eyebrow-raising announcements, the centre is marked by its small team of engineers and scientists.
"Other entities have huge budgets and thousands of engineers and scientists compared to us, but we are very cost effective in the way we do our projects," said Al Marri.
With only over 100 engineers, Al Marri said while the general stereotype points to having a large number of people and high budgets.
"Cost is mostly associated with people, but we tackle challenging issues and we look at doing these things on our own, and that in itself is a big cost saving method," he said.
According to Al Sayegh, the UAE has always been known as an important hub for technology and knowledge, it is now time to be the exporter. "Space is a good field to do that."
He noted that the teams' efforts are headed towards placing the UAE as an active participant in space throughout the world.
But the purpose is to reach such big goals sustainably in an exceptionally short time.
"The UAE has shown the world that a small nation with small population in a very harsh region can be successful. Space is an exceptional sector and having a young team working on it is itself an achievement and challenge," said Al Sayegh.
The probe will be a compact spacecraft having the size and weight of a small car. It will blast off in a launcher rocket, then detach and accelerate into deep space. It will reach a speed of 126,000km per hour for the 600 million kilometre journey around the sun to Mars, which will take around 200 days.
The probe will orbit the Red Planet until at least 2023, with an option to extend the mission until 2025. It will send back more than 1,000GB of data to be analysed by teams of researchers in the UAE, and shared freely with more than 200 institutions worldwide.
The Emirates Mars Mission will leave behind a major legacy on Earth. In this way it is designed as a catalyst for a new generation of Arab scientists and engineers, and as an anchor project for the growing science and space sectors.
Two latest initiatives at MBRSC
Two initiatives were launched last week in line with the visit of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to the centre.
The massive house represents a new concept of a building specifically designed to suit the hot and humid climate.
Yousef Hamad Al Shaibani, the centre's director-general, said the main goal of the project is to reduce energy consumption and to ensure self-reliance on generating energy, through an integrated approach based on technological and engineering innovations.
The opening of the second phase of the Space Technologies Laboratories is also expected to take the satellite industry and space technology to new heights.
Data to help climate scientists
Besides deepening human knowledge about Mars, the data will also help climate scientists understand changes in Earth's atmosphere over millions of years. This knowledge will also help space scientists to evaluate the atmospheres of thousands of newly discovered planets far across the galaxy, to determine which may have an atmosphere that could support extra-terrestrial life.
The Emirates Mars Mission will be the first to study dynamic changes in the Martian atmosphere throughout its daily and seasonal cycles. Its specialised instruments will enable scientists to observe weather phenomena such as clouds and dust storms, as well as changes in temperature, dust, ice and gases.