How to keep the space sector safe

It is not just geopolitics that will determine the future of the stars, but commerce, too

The Pillars of Creation, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.  AP
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Space will always be mysterious. Avicenna, a key Muslim philosopher, physician and astronomer, summed it up well when he wrote in the 11th century that: "My profession is to be forever journeying, to travel about the Universe so that I may know all its conditions."

That mystery might remain almost 1,000 years later, but we live in an era when space can be explored like never before. This chapter in its exploration began in the 20th century, defined by heroic, against-the-odds missions, propelled by competitive great powers.

In the 21st century, the pursuit is a great deal more open, with opportunities for medium-sized countries to contribute to space exploration. Private companies are now an integral part of missions, even those led by traditional space superpowers such as the US, and middle-power countries now have the skills and resources to contribute, too. Today, 70 nations have space programmes.

The UAE is a prime example. It did not exist as a country when the USSR sent the first animal into space in 1957, the dog Laika. Nor did it when the US sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969. Now, the Emirates has missions to Mars and the Moon, and has sent an astronaut to the International Space Station.

But it has not been a simple journey. The country has invested massively in the innovation and human capital needed to pursue such complex projects, most of which take place on Earth.

The latest efforts happened at the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, held on Monday and Tuesday and attended by delegates from more than 50 space agencies and authorities, in addition to academics, business leaders and popular space watchers from across the globe.

It discussed the modern state of exploration and its challenges, the latter being a key priority because this new phase will not be without environmental, geopolitical and legal hurdles. Commercial laws will need to be drawn up for civilian projects, and international arms treaties for governments.

Speakers such as Omran Sharaf, the project director of the Emirates Mars Mission and Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Advanced Science and Technology, and George Friedman, a leading geopolitics of space author, highlighted the importance of commerce – not just geopolitics – in the future of astronomy, and how this modern episode need not be one defined by rivalry; with the right stewardship, it could be an opportunity for much-needed international co-operation. Expert middle powers such as the UAE are well-placed to keep this mission on course.

Bringing together specialisms from all over the world – now with much coming from the Middle East – space research by its very nature lends itself towards collaboration, whether in terms of gathering and interpreting vast amounts of data; using findings to combat climate change on Earth (the hostile environment on Mars can teach humanity how to deal with deteriorating weather); pioneering new medical technologies; or inspiring the next generation of young astronomers.

These conversations on Earth will have consequences, ranging from how space is kept as an environment for all to sustainably benefit from, to protecting this precious, largely unspoilt environment from the devastating impact of conflict.

Space programmes might be most recognised internationally for what they send beyond Earth's orbit. But the sign of a truly sophisticated one is what is explored on the ground, whether scientific, legal or even moral.

Serdar Huseyin Yildrim, President of the Turkish Space Agency, summed up well the simplicity of the responsibility experts have: "Space exploration is not an option but a must." If more progress in the years ahead is inevitable, it is crucial it is achieved safely and collaboratively. That is how to honour the legacy of geniuses such as Avicenna, and all who have pondered the mystery of the stars.

Published: December 06, 2022, 3:00 AM