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Conquering space

Following the triumphant return of astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi after completing the longest Arab space mission, we take a look at the Middle East's space exploration efforts and the UAE's pioneering role in the sector

On Monday, September 18, 2023, astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi returned home to the UAE after successfully clocking in 4,400 hours in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Starting his journey in March 2023 – six months ago – along with three other astronauts, Neyadi embarked on the longest Arab space mission in history on a SpaceX Dragon capsule. He also became the first Arab spacewalker when he stepped out of his orbital outpost for seven hours. In doing so, he followed the footsteps of astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, who, in 2019, became the first Emirati in space with his eight-day mission to the ISS.

The two astronauts have arguably become ambassadors of the UAE's ambitious space strategy and their milestones have placed the country among the frontrunners of the space exploration industry. Yet, the UAE's journey to space encompasses so much more.

The UAE's National Space Strategy

In 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched the National Space Programme, outlining the country's strategies and goals for space study including satellites, Mars missions, lunar expeditions and more. A special UAE Astronaut programme was also introduced to train Emirati youth for scientific space exploration missions. Two years later, the National Space Strategy 2030 was announced with an aim to enhance the space sector’s contribution to the national economy and promote the UAE's international presence in the field. Space exploration has also earned a place among the country's top priorities for the next 50 years.

The country's investments are already paying dividends, with the success of Al Neyadi's and Al Mansouri's respective missions, as well as the Emirates Mars Mission, which saw the Hope Probe launch in July 2020 and enter into orbit around Mars in February 2021. Since then, the probe has released 2.1 terabytes of data on the atmosphere of the Red Planet, which has been made available for free across the globe. Thanks to its success, the programme has been further extended for two years to gather more data on the planet's atmosphere and to study Deimos (Mars' moon).

Working to bring the space programme to life is the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and the UAE Space Agency. Along with the ongoing astronaut missions and research programmes, the entities are also overseeing the country's Mars 2117 vision to build the first human colony on the red planet. In 2022, the UAE Space Agency also announced an investment of close to US$1 billion for the space sector – The National Space Fund – to support new research projects, develop new space technology and train new talent. The fund’s first investment is in the development and launch of a constellation of advanced imaging satellites to create highly detailed and complex radar images of land use, ice cover, surface changes and characterisation to meet today’s global challenges.

In May 2023, the UAE also launched a 13-year-long project – the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt. Following six years of spacecraft development, the MBR Explorer will undertake a five-billion-kilometre journey beyond Mars to explore seven asteroids in the belt over a period of seven years, ultimately landing on the last asteroid in 2034.

With all these completed and ongoing projects, the UAE is setting itself up as a pioneering global force for space exploration.

Joining the space race

The region's interest in space exploration is not just limited to the UAE. Earlier this year, the Saudi Space Commission (SSC) sent two astronauts – Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali AlQarni – to the ISS as part of Axiom Space’s AX-2 mission. The SSC also launched the US$2.1 billion Saudi Space Accelerator Program last year to enhance the country’s space industry as part of Vision 2030.

Meanwhile, Oman is planning to build the region’s first space launch complex in the port town of Duqm. Called Etlaq, development is currently underway and will take about three years to complete. A research project known as the Space Settlement Centre is also planned for Duqm, while a 10-year National Space Policy will support the country’s growing sector. Kuwait also recently launched its first satellite, Kuwait Sat-1, onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9, while the Egyptian Space Agency has plans to launch two satellites soon.

Global space exploration efforts are believed to improve life on Earth significantly by driving technological advancements, furthering scientific knowledge and providing economic benefits. These beliefs are mirrored across the region, with the space sector viewed as a key component to diversifying individual economies and ensuring future growth and prosperity with continuous innovation. By participating equally in these global efforts, the Middle East is ensuring that they are not mere spectators on this journey to conquering space, but are working towards becoming pioneers in the industry.


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