Saudi Arabia boosts space education after success of ISS mission

New scholarship programme aims to give pupils access to space majors in world's top universities

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Saudi Arabia has launched a scholarship programme that will help more students pursue higher education in space-related fields.

The new study bursary comes after the kingdom launched Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni on an eight-day science mission to the International Space Station on May 22.

To build a long-term space programme, Saudi Arabia is now encouraging more young people to pursue space careers and become space scientists, engineers and astronauts.

Selected pupils will be granted scholarships to the world’s top 200 educational institutions, to study subjects such as astronomy and space sciences, aerospace engineering, astrophysics, general relativity physics and cosmology, vehicle design, aeronautics and astronautical engineering, and space engineering.

“In order to enhance capabilities and cultivate promising national competencies in space-related fields, the [communications, space and technology] Commission has collaborated with Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Programme to diversify specialisations in this domain,” a statement said.

“This partnership aims to empower national cadres and fulfil the kingdom's aspirations in space exploration, while also keeping up with global advancements and achieving the Commission’s goals and the kingdom's Vision 2030.”

It is unclear how many pupils will be eligible for a scholarship.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is a series of economic reforms that looks to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy by investing in different sectors, including space.

The kingdom launched an astronaut programme last year, with plans to send many more citizens into space in the coming years.

It launched Prince Sultan bin Salman on Nasa’s Space Shuttle in 1985, but no long-term space programme followed that.

In the new space era, many Arab countries are getting involved, with the UAE currently leading the way, having sent two astronauts to the ISS and a probe to Mars. It plans to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Oman is planning to build a spaceport and Kuwait and Bahrain are developing nanosatellites.

Saudi Arabia has also set its sights on going beyond low-Earth orbit and hopes to send missions to the Moon and Mars in the future.

“There are a lot of emerging space countries that are now taking active steps to be participants and introduce their space sector globally,” Mishaal Ashemimry, special adviser to the chief executive of the Saudi Space Agency, told The National in an interview in May.

“Certainly in the region you’re seeing an increasing trend of interest in participation in the space economy.

“I believe in the next few years the efforts and missions are going to increase, and the contributions are going to increase tremendously.”

Countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking to get involved in the US-led Artemis programme, which aims to build a human presence on the Moon, and then eventually send them to Mars from there.

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The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are signatories of the Artemis Accords, a US-led international agreement that outlines peaceful exploration of the Moon.

“The Artemis programme is pretty big. Whether you contribute through technology or astronauts, it's a big programme,” Ms Ashemimry told The National.

“So, determining the exact technology that you're going to be developing to benefit all the Artemis Accords signatories and participating with astronauts – I think all that is open for us to do, for sure.”

As more investment is made into the Arab world's space sector, developing national talent has become crucial.

In 2020, two UAE universities introduced a master's programme in space sciences to cater to an increasing number of students interested in pursuing a degree in the field.

The University of Sharjah started its master’s programme in astronomy and space science The UAE University in Al Ain is offering master's degrees in space sciences, with courses such as spacecraft systems, space physics, astronomy and astrophysics, remote sensing of terrestrial and planetary surfaces and digital image processing in remote sensing.

In Saudi Arabia, the King Saud University and King Abdulaziz University offer a bachelor's degree course in astrophysics.

Updated: June 19, 2023, 12:45 PM