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Is the Middle East ready for a liftoff in the global space industry?
About nine countries in the region now have their space programs that range from placing satellites into the Earth’s orbit to planning a lunar landing.
Last Tuesday, the Hakuto-R Mission 1 spacecraft, carrying the UAE’s Rashid rover, began lowering its altitude to get closer to the lunar surface for a landing attempt. It was flying at speeds of 6,000kph but had to slow down to about 625kph as it moved closer to the surface.
Then came a communication blackout and little later, news of mission failure: “We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” said Ispace, the Japanese company that built the Hakuto-R Mission 1 spacecraft.
We saw the footage of the Emirati engineers and scientists looking crestfallen when they learned that the spacecraft carrying the Rashid rover had crashed on the Moon during a landing attempt.
It wasn’t an easy task. Only the US, the former Soviet Union, and China have achieved soft landings on the Moon.
The UAE-built rover was meant to spend 14 days studying an unexplored region of the Moon.
Does failure to land on the Moon spell the end of the UAE’s space ambitions? No. UAE will try again – and all over the Middle East, a burgeoning space industry is watching with interest.
It’s the beginning of what comes next.
A day after the failed landing attempt, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced work has started on a new explorer for the second attempt for a lunar landing, to be led by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).
“Emiratis have proved their ability to develop advanced space projects and rapidly create a vibrant national space sector,” he said. “The UAE built a space sector from scratch within just ten years. The Rashid rover mission was driven by the country’s ambitious vision for space exploration.”
UAE has many other extraterrestrial ambitions in the pipeline. It aims to establish the first human settlement on Mars by 2117.
Meanwhile, it’s been almost two years since Hope arrived in orbit around Mars. The spacecraft — which cost about $200 million to build and launch — gave planetary scientists their first global view of Martian weather at all times of day, investigating how dust storms and other weather phenomena near the Martian surface speed or slow the loss of the planet’s atmosphere into space.
SPUR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRIES
That, however, is not the main reason the UAE built the Hope and Rashid rover. It aims to spur its science and technology industries.
Even other countries desire to catch up, trying to get into the game. In February, the Saudi Space Commission (SSC) announced two Saudi astronauts heading to the International Space Station later this year – joining the crew of Ax-2, Axiom Space’s second ISS mission.
It is a segment of a wider collaboration between SSC and Axiom Space, which trains Saudi astronauts and expands the kingdom’s space exploration capabilities.
About nine countries in the Middle East region now have space programs that range from placing satellites into the Earth’s orbit to planning a lunar landing.
“There is an ambitious space race in the region, particularly between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with both countries having launched government-funded space programs,” says Abdulla Alshehhi, Head of Strategic Research at UAE Space Agency and a participant of the National Experts Program, representing the space sector. “The programs and initiatives are avenues to advance scientific research and technology development and drive economic growth.”
Early in March, the second-ever astronaut from the UAE, Sultan Al Neyadi, previously another UAE astronaut flew on a Russian Soyuz mission, arrived at the ISS, joining a NASA mission, and is participating in over 200 experiments, including biomedical science and healthcare.
Al Neyadi conducted the spacewalk, first by an Arab, last Friday.
“There is a significant rejuvenation of the innovative spirit of space exploration,” says Ali Al Hashemi, CEO of Yahsat Group, UAE’s flagship satellite solutions provider. “Even though the Middle East countries’ space pursuit is relatively nascent, the UAE notably made great strides and successes within a short period, compared to key powerhouses of the industry that began their journey decades ago.”
Satellite services, including telecoms, metrology, earth observation, and navigation support the industry.
UAE already has 16 satellites in space since the launch of the first Thuraya satellite in 2000, while Saudi Arabia, which played a key role in the formation of Arabsat, a satellite communications company that launched its first satellite in 1985, partnered with Lockheed Martin to build its first satellite launched in 2019.
The kingdom has also signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for space activity, suggesting it wants to play a role in a future space economy. Egypt is also planning to send its first astronaut into space by 2026. This steady progress in the space programs is a big win for the region.
BIG INVESTMENT IN THE SPACE INDUSTRY
However, few would describe the region as a space powerhouse. For example, While the countries have expertise in developing and producing satellites, albeit with help from other countries mostly, it has less experience launching them.
Yet over the last decade, space has become one of the region’s fastest-growing sectors, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
So how did space industry get so massive?
The UAE, which has over 3000 engineers, technicians, and specialists working at 80 entities and companies in the space industry, spent almost $3 billion commercially on space-related activities between 2015 and 2020, and the number of contracts for space services and applications rose by 40% that same year.
In 2019, the UAE government announced a plan to invest $5.4 billion in the space sector, including establishing a spaceport and the development of a Mars Science City.
Saudi Arabia plans to invest over $2 billion in the space program to embrace a wide array of next-generation industries.
BUILDING SPACE ECONOMY
“Private sector is making significant investments and leveraging advanced technologies to grow the sector,” says Alshehhi.
“The UAE Space Agency has launched the Space Economic Zones program to support and promote the space industry’s growth. By creating a strong business environment for space-focused companies, the UAE can help attract investment and encourage the development of new technologies in the space sector,” he adds.
Interestingly, the UAE also plans to fly astronauts with commercial partners every three to five years.
Non-state actors play an increasingly important role in space exploration, as in-country demand for remote sensing data is expected to exceed $400 million in the MENA region by 2027, creating significant opportunities for satellite communication enterprises such as Yahsat.
“Remote sensing is an area of focus as access to timely data critical to the country’s security, environmental, urban development, and economic strategy,” says Al Hashemi.
Yahsat recently partnered with MBRSC to commercialize remote sensing data and earth observation images for its key customers and joined hands with G42 on remote sensing and AI-enabled geospatial analytics to develop and deploy best-in-class solutions.
“Continuous large investments across space-related infrastructure are going to happen steadily. An important trend we are witnessing is that the private sector plays a larger role in driving investments,” says Al Hashemi.
This is evident in Yahsat’s recent acquisition of a minority stake in IoT solutions provider eSAT Global. The move will bring a new low-cost, low-latency, direct-to-satellite IoT service. In addition, Yahsat’s mobility arm, Thuraya, has concluded a Head of Terms with Astrocast, a leading Low Earth Orbit, and IoT network operator, for an investment valued at $17.5 million.
GROWING STARTUP ECOSYSTEM
Building a space economy includes accelerating the startup ecosystem that will bring innovative ideas, technologies, and solutions.
“Spacetech startups require access to specialized facilities, funding, talent, and expertise that can only be provided through dedicated ecosystems,” says Elodie Robin-Guillerm, Head of Growth & Strategy, Hub71, a tech ecosystem backed by the Government of Abu Dhabi and Mubadala Investment Company, has been supporting space tech startups.
“We have established partnerships with various investors, government and private entities that provide startups with the resources to help scale and grow their businesses,” adds Robin-Guillerm.
Hub71 onboarded high-potential startups, such as Precious Payload, which launched in Abu Dhabi as the first online marketplace for space missions.
“The favorable regulatory environment, strategic location, and supportive policies in the UAE are also attracting foreign investors to the sector,” says Robin-Guillerm.
With the UAE and Saudi Arabia investing serious money in the space sector, US and European companies are partnering with the countries on various space projects providing technical and manufacturing know-how.
“The UAE’s growing partnership with NASA and US private space companies, for example, is paving the way for more ambitious plans such as launching the lunar rover and the first UAE national and Arab astronaut to walk on the moon in the near future,” says Al Hashemi.
Since its launch in 2018, Saudi’s space program has struck deals with the European Space Agency, the UK, France, and Hungary to accelerate its participation in the global space industry.
“In the coming years, we can expect to see continued innovation in space-related technologies and increased collaboration with international partners,” says Robin-Guillerm.
Observers say the two countries’ space programs could become wild cards as space technology becomes accessible. The global space economy is estimated to be worth around $469 billion and has been growing steadily every year. The growth reflects the huge market appetite for space-enabled technologies and services.
“Investments in space technologies accelerate job creation and knowledge transfer — the two key pillars driving any economy forward. The impact of space-based activities goes beyond commercial revenues, extending to many segments of the economy such as agriculture, transportation, and the environment,” says Al Hashemi.
These are the boldest moves by the countries looking to establish a future beyond the petroleum economy, and a space program is one way to accomplish that goal.
“As the industry matures, it has the potential to drive economic growth and promote scientific research and education across the Middle East,” says Robin-Guillerm. “The region is poised to become a major player in the global space sector.”
Space has opened up. There will be more spacewalks. And a lunar landing? UAE may well be the first Arab country to boldly go again and safely land.