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Watch this Space

Posted 27 April 2009 · Add Comment

Steve Nichols reports on the potential of the Middle East's ever expanding Space industry.

The Middle East was the birthplace of astronomy, with many of the stars in the sky having their names derived from the original Arabic, such as Aldebaran, Deneb and Altair. Islam advised Muslims to find ways of using the stars, with the Qur'an saying: "And it is He who ordained the stars for you that you may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea.”

Dubai's Palm from Space

Dubai's Palm as viewed from Space

So it is no great surprise that the Arabic nations in the area are once again looking skyward and have a very active space industry.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Iran all have satellite industries and the Middle East could be on the verge of launching its own space tourist business too.

Dubai is on course to join the space race with the launch of its Dubai Sat-1 some time this year. The UAE's first earth observation satellite has been developed by SatrecI in South Korea with in depth participation of UAE engineers from the EIAST (Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology).

It will be launched into a low-earth, sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 680km. DubaiSat-1 will weigh less than 200kg, including a 50kg payload mass and with an average power consumption of less than 150 Watts.

The remote-sensing satellite was designed for a minimum lifetime of 5 years in-orbit operation and will provide the UAE with a valuable source of information to support the country's development plans.

Its data will be used for infrastructural development, long-term urban planning, the management of natural disasters, scientific and space research and development.

Dubai Sat-1 will be launched into low-earth orbit on a Dnepr rocket by the Moscow-based launching company, International Space Company (ISC) Kosmotras.

Images will then be transmitted to a ground station, which is currently being built and tested in Dubai. This has been used to receive images from NASA’ Aqua satellite as part of testing.

Dubai Sat-1’s development team is already working on finalising designs for DubaiSat-2, with a long-term aim of creating the UAE's first constellation of satellites.

EIAST was established by the Dubai Government in 2006 to facilitate the country's move to develop a knowledge-based economy. EIAST takes pride in the fact that every one of its scientists and engineers are Emiratis.

Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, director general of EIAST, said:  “Developing a core team of UAE scientists and experts was the most definitive outcome of a strategy that is geared to support mature, knowledge based development. Developing a base of UAE scientists and engineers is a crucial first step in becoming a regional and global leader in the fields of advanced science and technology.”

At the UAE’s Global Space Technology Forum (GSTF), held in November, Mansoori proposed that the UAE creates an Emirates’ Research Authority, and a Science Academy to define a UAE-level space policy.


new abu dhabi space centre

An artists’ impression of 4C's new Gulf Earth Observation Centre in Abu Dhabi

He urged collaboration in the UAE by formulating a coherent, coordinated science policy that integrates the diverse research activities of governments, industries, universities, and decision makers in the country.

He said: “The GSTF is an essential platform for EIAST to contribute to the future of the global space technology, and we are delighted with our participation in this first-of-a kind forum in the UAE.”

It is a similar story over in the Abu Dhabi where the largest space centre in the Middle East and North Africa is to be built within the next six months.

Called the 4C GEOC, the $1.03 billion centre will receive and analyse data from a cluster of four satellites, which will be launched by 2013 with two of them being operational by 2012.

The centre will cover an area of approximately 10,000m2 and is a collaborative venture between United States public company 4C Controls Incorporated, and Abu Dhabi-based Hydra Trading LLC.

Major-General Khalid Abdulla Mubarak Al Buainnain, the executive vice president of Middle East Military and Defence Projects at 4C Controls Incorporated, said that the centre will hold an earth observation satellite data Direct Receiving Station (DRS) and offer university-level courses in space engineering held in cooperation with the Politecnico Di Torino, Italy.

The space centre will focus on defence applications, civilian security and surveillance, emergency risk management, maritime management, environmental protection, geology, forestry and hydrology, cartography and planning, Al Buainain said.

"We believe that having 4C's Gulf Earth Observation Centre located in Abu Dhabi will uniquely provide our region [with] an access to a key technology, secure and timely data acquisition, processing, analysis and distribution, which was not available to our regional customers," he added.

"The centre will be a major step towards further development of space research and technology in the region, especially as we also intend to create a talent pool specialised in the most advanced space technologies.”

The space centre will form a part of a global network of three ground stations spread across the Middle East, Africa and Latin America to collect satellite data and provide telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C).

sandstorm over the UAE

NASA captured this image of a sandstorm over the UAE

The data will be acquired under the company's Gulf Satellites Programme, an earth observation system (EOS) consisting of four high-resolution SAR satellites (GULF SAR 1, 2, 3 and 4) and two high-resolution optical satellites.

There are also plans to include a conference centre for hosting special events and annual conventions related to earth observation technologies.

Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company, has also signed an agreement with a European consortium comprising of EADS Astrium /Thales Alenia Space to manufacture an $1.66bn dual satellite communications system in time for a launch in the second half of 2010.

Yahsat's two satellites will be launched within months of one another and fulfil the satellite communication requirements of both government and commercial customers in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South West Asia.

The operational life of the satellites is estimated at 15 years and-YahSat 1A and YahSat 1B. 1A will be stationed at the orbital position of 52.5°E.

S2M, a mobile entertainment provider in the region, has also announced a formal contract with Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) for the S2M-1 satellite – the first mobile TV satellite covering the Middle East and North Africa. S2M will offer a mobile TV service that will allow consumers to watch and listen to high-quality video and audio broadcasts via mobile phones and other personal mobile devices throughout the region.

In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, blasted off from Cape Kennedy on board Space Shuttle Discovery for a seven-day mission as a payload specialist, helping to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organisation.

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Space

As the first Arab to travel into space, Prince Sultan became an icon across the region. He was also the first person to observe Islamic prayers and read the Quran in space.

Saudi Arabia has been in the satellite business for the last nine years with its SaudiSat micro-satellite programme. Saudisat 1A and 1B were developed by the Saudi Institute for Space Research at KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology), Riyadh, and carried amateur radio store-forward communications payloads.

Launched in 2000, they were joined over the next four years by four more satellites, culminating in Saudicomsat 1 in June 2004.

A further six communications satellites were launched in January 2008, according to the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). The craft were launched from the Baikonur Base in Kazakhstan on Russian-Ukrainian launchers.

The Saudi Centre for Remote Sensing (SCRS) was established in 1986 as a division of the Space Research Institute. SCRS signed a number of agreements to receive satellite data from various satellites. The ground station is capable of simultaneously receiving multiple satellites and it is fully automated for satellite tracking reception. SCRS is now considered one of the leading centres worldwide.

Arabsat was formed in 1976 by the 21 member-states of the Arab League and owns and operates four satellites, at two orbital positions - 26° and 30.5° East. The satellites are BADR-6 (26°E), BADR-4 (26°E), BADR-3 (26°E) and Arabsat-2B (30.5°E).

The company operates the satellites, but they are built and launched under contract. Earlier this year it signed a contract for two new satellites (5C and Badr 7) with EADS Astrium and Thales Alenia Space for manufacturing and Arianespace for launching.

Iran said it launched its first domestically-made satellite into orbit in February 2009. The satellite, carried on a Safir-2 rocket, was meant for telecommunication and research purposes, Iran state TV said.

Launched into a low-earth orbit, the satellite was expected fall back to Earth and burning up as it re-entered within a few months.

Nevertheless, the US said the launch was of "great concern" and could lead to ballistic missile developments, although Iran insists its intent is peaceful.

In February 2007, Iran claimed it had launched a rocket capable of reaching space, before it made a parachute-assisted descent to Earth.

In October 2005, a Russian rocket launched Iran's first satellite, the Sina-1, which carried photographic and telecommunications equipment.

Iran is reportedly working on five satellite programmes, though little information is available.

Egypt launched its first imaging satellite, EgyptSat1, in April 2007 in a cooperative venture with the Ukrainian-based KB Yuzhnoye company.

Egypt has already launched a number of satellites for non-scientific purposes. Nilesat 101 was launched in 1998, Nilesat 102 in 2000, and Nilesat 103 in 2007. These satellites are capable of delivering more than 400 TV and 100 audio channels as well as multimedia services to tens of millions homes (350 to 422 million individuals over North Africa, the Middle East, (from Morocco to the Arabian Gulf region and Southern Europe.

Nilesat has also selected Thales Alenia Space of France and to build the Nilesat 201 satellite that is scheduled to be launched in early 2010 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

The Nilesat 201 satellite is expected to weigh 3,200kg at launch and deliver 5.7 kilowatts of power to the payload. It will carry 28 Ku-band transponders and four transponders in Ka-band for direct-to-home television, radio and data-transmissions in the Middle East and North Africa.

You might not think it, but Algeria has been a major player in the space industry for many years.

AlSat 1 (Algerian Satellite), a 90kg enhanced microsatellite was Algeria's first national satellite and was launched in 2002. It was been designed and constructed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in the UK under a collaborative programme with the Algerian Centre National des Techniques Spatiales (CNTS).

Surrey, UK- based SSTL built AlSat 1 (Algerian Satellite), a 90kg enhanced microsatellite

SSTL built AlSat 1 (Algerian Satellite), a 90kg enhanced microsatellite

Based just a few miles away from Farnborough in Guildford, SSTL was recently snapped up by EADS Astrium after the University of Surrey decided to sell its majority stake of 85% in the small satellite manufacturer.

AlSat 1 was part of an international collaboration to launch the first constellation of Earth observation satellites specifically designed for disaster monitoring.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) consists of five remote-sensing satellites constructed SSTL and operated for the Algerian, Nigerian, Turkish, British and Chinese governments by DMC International Imaging.

The DMC provides emergency Earth imaging for disaster relief. Other DMC Earth imagery is used for a variety of civil applications by a variety of governments. Spare available imaging capacity is sold under contract.

EADS Astrium also signed a contract in February 2006 with the Algerian National Space Technology Centre (CNTS) for the development of the ALSAT-2 system, which consists of two optical observation satellites. ALSAT-2 is the first Earth observation satellite system from the AstroSat100 family to be built using the Myriade platform.

The ALSAT-2 contract covers the design and development of two satellites. The first, ALSAT-2A, will be integrated and tested in France at EADS Astrium, whereas the second, ALSAT-2B, will be integrated in Algeria within the small satellite development centre (UDPS) in Oran.

The system will enable Algeria to obtain high quality images for use in a wide variety of applications, including cartography, management of agriculture, forestry, water, mineral and oil resources, crop protection, management of natural disasters and land planning.

The last word in Middle East space exploits rests with the US-based Space Adventures. In February 2006 it announced that it was to build a $265m global Spaceport development project at Ras Al-Khaimah in the UAE.

The company, which has organised the orbital flights for all of the world's private space explorers, also announced that His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi of Ras Al-Khaimah, along with the UAE Department of Civil Aviation, had granted clearance to operate suborbital spaceflights in their air space.

Space Adventures President Eric Anderson said at the time that the UAE spaceport, planned to be located less than an hour drive from Dubai, would offer flights aboard its system consisting of a flight-operational carrier aircraft, the M-55X, and a rocket spacecraft.

The suborbital space transportation system has been designed by Myasishchev Design Bureau, a leading Russian aerospace organisation that has developed a wide-array of high performance aircraft and space systems. Explorer, as it has been named, will have the capacity to transport up to five people to space and is designed to optimise the customer experience of space travel, while maintaining the highest degree of safety.

Space Adventures currently offers a variety of programs such as the availability today for orbital space flight missions to the International Space Station, Zero-Gravity and MiG flights, cosmonaut training, spaceflight qualification programmes and reservations on future sub-orbital spacecraft.

space adventures

Space Adventures announced in 2006 that it was to build a  $265m global spaceport development project at Ras Al-Khaimah in the UAE

The company's advisory board includes Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, shuttle astronauts Kathy Thornton, Robert (Hoot) Gibson, Charles Walker, Norm Thagard, Sam Durrance, Byron Lichtenberg, Pierre Thuot and Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott.

The US company has sold seats on Russian rockets to the International Space Station worth an estimated $255.

A typical trip to the ISS, such as Hungarian computer software executive Charles Simonyi’s, costs around $51m.

Sub-orbital flights such as those from the Ras Al-Khaimah spaceport will typically cost around $100,000 apiece.

At the time of writing Space Adventures refused to comment on the latest plans for the UAE spaceport, only referring back to its original press release, which is already three years old.

Virgin Galactic chairman Richard Branson is also said to be interested in building a Middle Eastern spaceport for his Burt Rutan-designed "White Knight Two" mothership and eight-person spacecraft "SpaceShipTwo (SS2)" combination.

Richard Branson

Virgin Galactic's chairman Richard Branson

He said recently that several new countries are now bidding for a spaceport as the project moves closer to reality.

"Because spaceship programmes are not cheap to develop, I think we're going to prioritise one or two of the countries that are paying quite considerable sums of money for us to go there first," he said.

"We've got three Middle Eastern countries competing for one spaceport in the Middle East.  Right now I think they've got deeper pockets than some other countries."

A spokeperson for Sharaf Travel - the UAE-based agent for Virgin Galactic - said that take up for the future space flights out of the USA-based spaceport had been terrific.

"We are holding more than $45m in deposits to date globally," it said.
But perhaps Middle Eastern space lovers will have to be content with looking at the stars with both feet firmly planted on the ground for the time being - just as their astronomy-loving forefathers did.

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