UAE space programme: all you need to know

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Down here on Earth, six years is a relatively short space of time but for the UAE’s ambitious young space industry, it is long enough to move forward by light-years.

The country’s first fully government-owned satellite was launched into space in 2009. Since then the UAE space sector has gone into overdrive, largely thanks to a series of bold government initiatives.

Here is an outline of the 10 key players and initiatives in the UAE space business:

Emirates Mars Mission

The UAE’s aim to send an unmanned probe to Mars is its most ambitious plan yet. The UAE Space Agency’s Mars Mission is scheduled for launch in 2020, although it will not reach the Red Planet until the following year, which marks the UAE’s 50th anniversary. “This is the Arab world’s version of president Kennedy’s Moon shot – it’s a vision for the future that can engage and excite a new generation of Emirati and Arab youth,” says Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States.

The UAE Space Agency

Established in 2014, the agency directs national space programmes that will have direct benefits to the country’s economy and human capital. It creates space policy and regulation, as well as supporting the development of engineers and scientists. In October, the Space Agency gained membership of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, making the UAE the first Arab country to join.

The National Space Programme

This newspaper in November announced a partnership with the UAE Space Agency and Boeing to launch its own space initiative. The National Space Programme features two competitions – Genes in Space, which will see students from across the UAE compete for the opportunity to have their experiments launched into space and conducted by scientists on board the International Space Station; and the Satellite Launch project.

Khalifa University Space lab

The Abu Dhabi educational institution this year opened what is believed to be the region’s first space lab. The Spacecraft Platform for Astronautic and Celestial Emulation (Space) laboratory has special unmanned aerial vehicles, robots and sensing systems that help mimic actual conditions in space.

Space Research Centre

Announced in May, the planned research centre in Al Ain – a partnership between the UAE Space Agency, UAE University and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, represented by the ICT Fund – is set to cost almost Dh100 million over five years. It is intended to act as an incubator for space research and innovation at the Federal level.


There are already spacecraft being controlled from the UAE – from the very Nasa-style mission control room at the satellite operator Yahsat. The subsidiary of the government-owned Mubadala Development already has two satellites in orbit and a third set to blast off in 2016. It offers a range of communication services including voice, internet and TV. The Al Yah 3 satellite, set to go live, after launch, in early 2017, will extend Yahsat’s broadband services to 19 countries across Brazil and Africa.

Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

MBRSC was founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in 2015 when it was integrated with the existing Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST). The centre’s projects include satellites and the Emirates Mars Mission. It has scientific laboratories and research facilities based in Dubai, as part of its broader goal of building a sustainable knowledge-based economy.

DubaiSat, KhalifaSat

DubaiSat-1 was the first fully UAE-owned satellite. It was launched in 2009, then part of EIAST, which was later rolled into MBRSC. A second DubaiSat blasted off in 2013; KhalifaSat, the first satellite fully manufactured by Emirati engineers in the UAE, is expected to enter orbit in 2018.


DubaiSat-1 blasted off in 2009, but the UAE mobile satellite communications company Thuraya was years ahead of it. The company launched its first satellite, Thuraya-1, in 2000, as the Middle East’s first mobile telecommunication satellite. The private company has investors from the United States, United Kingdom and Middle East.

Virgin Galactic

Abu Dhabi-owned Aabar paid US$280 million for 31.8 per cent of Virgin Galactic in 2009, later raising it to 37.8 per cent, with talk of the emirate becoming the location for the second of Virgin’s Spaceport facilities. Richard Branson’s already famous company, billed as the world’s first commercial spaceline, has sold hundreds of $250,000 tickets. But it is now trying to recover from a major blow in 2014 when a test flight exploded over the Mojave Desert in California, killing a pilot.