Q&A with Mohammed al-Ahbabi, Director-General of the UAE Space Agency

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Profile | Mohammed al-Ahbabi
Director-General, UAE Space Agency


Framework for the Future

The United Arab Emirates is home to a major mobile satellite services operator in Thuraya, a growing fixed satellite services provider for commercial and government customers in Yahsat, and a domestic Earth observation satellite builder and services provider in the recently reorganized Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.

Through an investment fund, the UAE is also a major investor in Virgin Galactic, a company developing vehicles to take tourists to the edge of space and to deploy small satellites to low Earth orbit.

Since July 2014, the UAE also has a space agency to coordinate the national strategy in what UAE officials believe is a sector that could provide long-term economic growth. On May 21, the government released a broad strategy document to guide the UAE Space Agency, which will be producing an overall national space policy later this year.

The centerpiece to the strategy, and the one the agency hopes will lure young Emiratis into the space technology business, is the Hope mission to Mars, which the government plans to launch in 2020. Its arrival at Mars in 2021 would coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary. The Hope orbiter will map the Martian atmosphere, a mission that UAE officials decided after consultations with international Mars exploration groups.

UAE Space Agency Director-General Mohammed al-Ahbabi says the Hope mission, whose program milestones he admits leave little room for error, is more about the journey than the destination. The excitement of going to Mars, he says, will spur interest in science and engineering and help develop a sustainable domestic space technology industrial base.

The UAE will draw on expertise from more-experienced spacefaring nations during Hope’s development, but both the agency and its future space technology sector have specific goals with respect to hiring Emirati nationals.

Al-Ahbabi outlined his agency’s status and ambitions to SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster and Paris Bureau Chief Peter B. de Selding in separate interviews.

All agree that planetary exploration is too big for one nation. NASA is going to Mars, India too, and Europe, Russia and China, and now the UAE. Wouldn’t a single highway be better than so many cart tracks?

No. This way will be quicker. Look at many big international missions. They are often very slow. Yes, cooperation is better, but coordination will be a challenge. And for our mission, called Hope, we will work with strategic partners even as we use the mission to ramp up our domestic expertise.

Did you consult with international Mars exploration bodies before selecting your mission?

Of course! We have spoken to a number of Mars exploration and research institutions and asked: How can we help? They have a list of prioritized questions about Mars, and we selected what we could do from that list.

If I’m a 20-year-old UAE engineering student, wouldn’t I prefer petroleum or urban engineering to aerospace?

Our agency is located on a university campus. Our goal is to go to students and ask: Would you like to participate in a Mars mission and future space missions? We will attract people to science and engineering studies. Recently a man came to visit us and said his son wanted to go to Mars. I had to explain: This is an unmanned mission. We think we can get students excited.

So the Hope mission to Mars is designed more to stimulate UAE space interest and expertise than to work on Mars?

That’s true. We are a destination-driven nation — target-driven. And our target is Mars. We are united in this goal and we have given ourselves a tight deadline. We will make mistakes; there will be trial and error and we will learn from these errors. We will work with partners, and the technology transfer will be a great benefit to the UAE.

What are you doing in terms of education?

We are sending students abroad to study. We have also signed to support and facilitate establishment of the first space research center in the UAE, worth around $30 million. We are also supporting another project, on the national level, which is a ground-based UAE telescope. A telescope in the country would also provide a lot of help to researchers.

The United States seems a likely partner in this mission. Are there any export-control issues that you face in the data-gathering phase?

Yes. You know the International Traffic in Arms Regulations process. First you need to get a Technical Assistance Agreement to talk with U.S. industry about technical issues. We had already a number of TAAs issued. But this is just one of the gates. Then we try to work with our colleagues here and our potential strategic partners to find out what’s possible, what’s not possible, and we have a dialogue about how to maximize the things or the subsystems that can go through UAE.

Do you have any plans for missions besides the Mars probe?

We are focusing on education; small satellites, there are a number of projects for cubesats just to inspire and bring engineers to the space sector.

The UAE government recently published its space agency strategy, including “Emiratization.” What is the goal there?

This is a goal not just for our agency but for the country as a whole. As far as our agency, we want to invest in Emirati people. Our agency’s goal is to be 30 percent Emirati by the end of this year. But we will remain a very light agency — perhaps around 50 people in three or four years.

When you say light, you mean more like the U.K. Space Agency compared with the French space agency, CNES?

Yes. We have a mature space industry already in the UAE. Operators are already in place. The agency does not need to step in and control it. We will delegate and support.

Artist's concept of the UAE's Hope Mars climate-studying orbiter.
Artist’s concept of the UAE’s Hope Mars climate-studying orbiter.

Is having an established industry — in mobile satellite communications, fixed communications for commercial and government users, and an Earth observation satellite manufacturer — before the creation of the space agency an advantage?

I believe this is an advantage for us. I can support and delegate rather than control. It is a real gift to us to have three developed players — Thuraya in mobile satellite communications, Yahsat [in fixed commercial and government communications] and MBRSC [Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre] in Earth observation. They are complementary, not competing, so it’s much easier for us to coordinate their services.

But don’t agencies by their nature want to extend their power?

It’s always a matter of cost and benefit. We need to stand back and give the commercial sector the freedom it needs, all the while assuring that it meets the guidelines of the government’s space policy.

You mean the policy announced the week of May 21?

No, that was just the strategy of the UAE space industry. We plan to have a full national space policy strategy formed by the end of this year. The space agency will be the coordinator of this, with input from the civil aviation sector, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and others. Since we already have a space sector that was regulated, we only need to tweak things a bit and put the regulations under one roof.

Will your agency be in charge of policies relating to orbital slots and broadcast frequency rights — the topics to be discussed in November in Geneva at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15)?

No, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is leading that, and in fact the UAE is leading the Arab delegation to WRC-15. We think that our delegation to the International Telecommunication Union [which organizes the WRC conferences] is the strongest in the Arab region.

Does the UAE have any ambitions to develop a launch vehicle?

We don’t think we need it because launching has become a commodity. You can launch from Europe, from India, from Russia — there are so many options. Why have a launch vehicle to use only once or twice a year? We have good relations with many nations, so if relations were difficult with one, we could turn to another for launch.