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EIAST: The United Arab Emirates Space Program

There are dozens of emerging space nations around the world seeking to capitalize on dramatic increases in space technology accessibility. We take a look at one such nation, the United Arab Emirates, exploring the opportunities and challenges they face on the road to achieving space capability.

Entry of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into the Space Age occurred in the 1990s prompted by an interest in enhancing national capacity to effectively create, use, and exploit space science technologies and applications. In 2006, a UAE government decree by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, established the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST). The step signalled the nation’s commitment to developing excellence within the space industry. EIAST was established as part of a strategic initiative to promote scientific innovation and space technology advancement, and to inspire sustainable development in the UAE. American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, speaking at the April 2014 Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, expressed his opinion that the UAE will play a role in the next stage of space exploration as the country’s industry moves from being government policy-driven to commercial development-driven.

Dubai’s Satellites

EIAST became the first Dubai government entity to own an Earth observation satellite in orbit when DubaiSat-1 was launched in July 2009, following three years of joint development between EIAST and South Korea-based Satrec Initiative (SI). In developing DubaiSat-1, EIAST’s goal was to engage in a scientific knowledge and technology transfer program to jumpstart the institute’s satellite projects. DubaiSat-1 was followed by another three-year joint development of a more advanced imaging Earth observation spacecraft, DubaiSat-2, launched into orbit in November 2013. During its development, EIAST engineers took the lead to design mission requirements and develop a higher imaging resolution system and advanced components, supported by South Korean experts.

Both satellites have a 5-year design life and are currently nominally operational in their orbits. Launched from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan aboard the Dnepr vehicle of the Russian International Space Company Kosmotras in Moscow on 29 July 2009, DubaiSat-1 flies in a descending Sun-synchronous near-circular orbit (North to South), at 686-km altitude above the Earth’s surface, and goes round the Earth about sixteen times a day. DubaiSat-2 flies in an ascending Sun-synchronous near-circular orbit (South to North), at 600-km altitude, with about 8-day effective revisit time for any ground location with spacecraft body-pointing capability. The altitudes, orbits, and revisit times allow both satellites to work well in constellation and give a better coverage of the UAE.

In March 2014, the EIAST team started conceptualization of its third and most technologically advanced Earth imaging satellite DubaiSat-3, dubbed KhalifaSat after the UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Projected for launch in 2017, KhalifaSat will be one of the smallest satellites in the world capable of providing sub-meter images. The project is the culmination of a three-step approach intended to achieve full capabilities, knowledge, facilities, and research ability to develop advanced satellite missions by Emirati scientists and engineers on UAE soil. When launched, the success of KhalifaSat would represent a shift in UAE’s economy from being dependent on importing space technologies to in-house development.

Building Indigenous Capability

EIAST is made up of a core team of 27 Emeriti engineers who are working to position their country as a player in the global space industry. Amer Mohammed Al Sayegh, an aerospace engineer, is Senior Director of Space Systems Development Department at EIAST. He joined the institute in 2005, participated in its knowledge transfer program, and remains a key figure in the development of EIAST satellite projects. Sayegh contributed to the development of the Attitude Control System for DubaiSat-1, managed system-level engineering, and developed an agile Attitude Control System for DubaiSat-2. He is currently the Project Manager for the KhalifaSat project. Space Safety Magazine contacted Eng. Amer Al Sayegh to get some insight into EIAST development since 2006.

Observing UAE

Structural photo of the 200-Kg DubaiSat-1 imaging microsatellite, a cylindrical body of hexagonal shape, showing two of its three deployable solar panels in manufacturing room of Satrec Initiative, Daejeon, South Korea (Credits: EIAST).

For decades, developed countries have relied on satellite-based services to support informed decision making processes, policy implementation, and compliance monitoring in all sectors of society. “EIAST civil land imaging spacecraft is increasingly successful and could soon become popular because it is a proven policy instrument and access to space capabilities is affordable,” says Sayegh. “The need for scientific data and images as leveraging instruments in monitoring compliance of social, economic, and security policies is one of the reasons why Earth observation is EIAST’s primary mission of choice.” The UAE Government invests primarily in EIAST Earth observation projects, although other satellite applications are part of the institute’s space project portfolio.

To illustrate how EIAST’s Earth observation is yielding short term benefits, Sayegh asserts that imaging instruments on DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 are being used “to protect forests, plan urban growth, harness water resources, manage coastal zones, plan and manage crises.” The DubaiSat-1 imaging system had recorded more than 10,000 images of the globe as of December 2012. Using the images, analysts can zoom into selected areas worldwide and identify car-sized objects at almost any time, similar to the resolution of images typically seen on Google Maps.

“DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 images are used, for example, to make study cases of the continuous development that is happening in the city of Dubai; we provide regular images to developers to monitor the progress of their projects,” Sayegh relates. “DubaiSat-1 images were used by governments and organizations in making decisions to provide emergency services and to monitor crises including the 2010 floods in Pakistan, 2010 Chilean mine collapse, and 2011 Japanese tsunami”; although UAE is not yet a member of the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, an international stature only available through satellites. Sayegh’s perspective concurs with the established view that Earth observation missions enhance socio-economic development of countries, with benefits for user populations, various industry sectors, education, and research.