Nearly 25 years ago, two professors in California conceived the idea of a cube-shaped satellite just 10 centimetres tall and wide, and weighing less than 10 kilograms, that could be built and launched into space at a much lower cost than anything else available on the market. Their initial goal was to make satellite design and construction easier for their graduate students. Today, the CubeSat format is the global standard for so-called nanosatellites, more than a thousand of which now orbit the Earth.
But more than six decades on from the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, the risk of failure associated with sending anything into space – however “nano” – remains rather large. Executives at Virgin Orbit, a space company, were reminded as much on Monday, when their system reported an “anomaly” during a launch mission from Cornwall, England, which resulted in a payload of nine nanosatellites being destroyed before reaching orbit. The company has made few details available, but emphasised that no one was injured.
It was a difficult moment for Virgin Orbit, whose shares slid 28 per cent after the news, but also for the UK, whose space agency was financing what was meant to be the first-ever satellite launch from British soil. (Technically, the launch was carried out mid-air from a modified commercial aeroplane that had taken off from British soil.)
Britain was not the only country left with dashed hopes. One of the nanosatellites aboard, a CubeSat named Aman, was set to be the first Omani satellite. Omani officials hoped that once Aman entered orbit, it would be used for environmental surveillance, taking high-resolution photos of the Earth’s surface that could be analysed later by an Omani company using machine-learning technology.
While this Omani orbital mission may have been scuppered, Aman was meant to be just an initial step in a much larger programme. In October 2021, Oman signed a strategic co-operation agreement with several international partners, the scope of which includes hopes for an eventual deep-space mission and the development of an indigenous space industry. In September the country announced plans to build a space research centre, which will include a dedicated zone for carrying out otherworldly experiments and simulations.
Oman’s ambitions are part of a broader effort shared among Arab countries to make space launches and missions a regular feature of the Arab world’s economic and scientific development. After the first Arab satellite, ArabSat-1, was launched by a Saudi organisation nearly 40 years ago, efforts to develop more formidable space programmes in the region largely stalled – save for the launch of occasional communications satellites, such as the UAE’s Thuraya-1 and Egypt’s NileSat-101.
In recent years, however, the picture has changed considerably. In 2018, Jordanian students built a CubeSat that was launched by the American company SpaceX. The same year, the UAE launched its first locally built satellite (Thuraya-1 was built in the US). And in 2020, the Emirates successfully launched the Hope Probe, the Arab world’s first-ever Mars mission, while in 2021, Bahrain and Kuwait sent up their own satellites.
Aman’s ill-fated launch is disappointing, but such moments of misfortune are only to be expected in an industry in which so much momentum is clearly building. Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, captured the sentiment best on Tuesday morning, when he reminded reporters: “This happens in the space industry…and we go back and go again and that’s what defines us.”