Saudi Arabia to monitor sustainability strategy from space

Kingdom to use satellites to track success of major tree-planting drive

Saudi Arabia wants to use satellite technology to help tackle weather issues. Photo: Nasa
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Saudi Arabia is looking to tap into the Earth observation market for enhanced environmental monitoring across the kingdom, a Saudi space official has said.

The efforts would help the country track the impact of its Green Initiative, a plan to plant 10 billion trees in the coming years, is having on the kingdom's weather and if it is helping to fight climate change.

Mishaal Ashemimry, adviser to the chief executive of the Saudi Space Agency, told The National the kingdom was looking to build assets in space and details, including how many satellites would feature in the plan, would be released in a new space strategy at a later date.

"The Green Initiative is supposed to plant a lot of trees across Saudi Arabia to tackle weather issues, whether it is dust storms or to help with temperatures," she said.

"You're going to definitely need some Earth observation satellites and remote sensing satellites to be able to give you the data to measure the changes that are occurring as you plant those trees.

"There are many other examples, whether it is with coral reefs in the Red Sea, where to position solar panels and understanding the solar flux intensity across Saudi – all that can be facilitated by a lot of satellites and constellations being put in space."

Earth observation is a developing market in the kingdom, with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology having developed most of the previous satellites, including the four SaudiSats launched between 2004 and 2018.

The last SaudiSat-5s, launched on a Chinese rocket in 2018, are helping provide high-resolution images of the planet’s surface and are meant to help with urban planning.

Indian market research company Mordor Intelligence said Saudi Arabia's Earth observation market was expected to grow from $0.11 billion to $0.18 billion in the next five years.

The kingdom is investing more in its space sector because of Vision 2030, an economic diversification plan.

It also announced an astronaut programme in 2022 and sent two of its citizens to the International Space Station for an eight-day trip.

Space debris

Ms Ashemimry said the kingdom would use the technology responsibly and take care not to add to the growing problem of space debris.

There are concerns of an overcrowded low-Earth orbit as more countries and private companies launch satellite constellations into space.

Thousands of satellites are defunct, creating space debris that circles the planet, creating potential danger for other assets in space and the International Space Station, where astronauts live and work.

"We recognise what the problem is and we plan to be part of the solution and contribute to the space debris problem," said Ms Ashemimry.

"Currently, we don't have a lot of assets in space so we're not the main contributor for space debris.

"But we do recognise that it is a problem. With any future efforts with our constellations, and when we send satellites, we intend to do so such that there is a means to remove the space debris once we're done."

Riyadh hosted a conference dedicated to space debris that took place on February 11 and 12.

The Saudi Space Agency signed two agreements with private companies, including American firm LeoLabs and Canada's NorthStar.

The agreement with NorthStar focuses on managing space traffic after research on space sustainability and advanced data analytics.

It was not clear if the Saudi Space Agency would work towards any technology that helps to solve the growing problem of space debris.

There are companies, such as Japan's Astroscale and Switzerland's ClearSpace, that focus on space debris removal and are trying to develop technology dedicated to the cause.

Dr John Crassidis, a professor at the University at Buffalo in New York, told The National low-Earth orbit could be "essentially useless" in 50 years if the problem of space debris is ignored.

He said the overcrowded orbit would also be a problem for rockets heading to the Moon and Mars.

"Right now, space debris does not pose an immediate danger but we've had some close calls," he said.

"The International Space Station is well protected from very small debris using shielding but on average it has to move about once a year – this is a lot – to avoid big debris.

"But if we don't do something soon, then it'll obviously be a bigger problem.

"We don't have the technology to remove debris right now. There are many ideas but none are practical.

"The best we can do is try not to make more debris to give us time to develop practical solutions."

Updated: February 14, 2024, 5:26 AM