Together, the UAE and the UK are exploring the final frontier

Collaboration between the UAE and UK's space agencies will help both countries, writes the UK ambassador, Philip Parnham.

The United Kingdom and UAE space agencies this week signed a memorandum of understanding to create a strategic space partnership. This will open the way for extensive cooperation between our two countries in space research, scientific missions and the search for popular applications. The memorandum was signed by UK Space Agency chief executive Dr David Parker and UAE Space Agency chairman Dr Khalifa Mohammed Al Rumaithi, who was in the UK visiting some key space facilities.

The UK is a world leader in space exploration and technology. Our first venture into space was in 1962 on the world’s first collaborative satellite, Ariel 1. In the 54 years since then, international cooperation has been central to human achievements in space. In 2004, British technology helped Europe land a probe on Titan, a moon of Saturn, 1.4 billion kilometres from Earth – the most distant landing yet achieved by mankind. Today, a quarter of the world’s commercial satellites rely on British technology.

The UK Space Agency, with its UK partners, is pursuing three high-level themes. First, the UK is driving down the cost of space access by working on small satellites and establishing a UK spaceport. Second, our National Space Security Policy recognises that space is a precious asset that must be secured and protected. The UK is committed to developing technologies to remove space debris safely, and to designing mission concepts that ensure reliable warnings of extreme space weather, and so mitigate the risks of space exploration. Finally, the agency is maximising exploitation of UK satellites by using collected data to the largest extent possible to improve our quality of life.

In December last year, Tim Peake became the first British astronaut to join the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). On his six-month mission – named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton's world-changing text Principia Mathematica – Mr Peake is conducting unique scientific experiments, from controlling a robot in the UK from the space station to monitoring intracranial fluid shifts during prolonged space flight.

Mr Peake and other UK scientists are making important contributions to the truly international work on board the ISS. This work will improve life on Earth, for instance by developing new medical techniques and strong, lightweight materials. It will also help space agencies plan for new missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Mr Peake is already inspiring a generation of young students in the UK, and is supported by a programme of education and outreach, bringing the excitement of space to classrooms across the country and encouraging interest in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. With this experience, the UK is able to support the UAE as its own ambitious space programme inspires innovation among Emirati students. Its relevance stretches far beyond space into technology and engineering excellence across many sectors and disciplines.

Against this backdrop of discoveries and incredible science, the epic challenge of the Emirates Mars Mission will be just one area where we can support the UAE in its vision of space excellence. Building on our existing relationship, this formal agreement between our governments will support ongoing work between the UK and UAE to achieve exciting and inspirational results in both academia and industry.

Our successful cooperation can already be seen between Deimos Space UK and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), which started a joint satellite project in 2015 to monitor from space specific types of environmental change in Dubai through the development of algorithms and 3D modelling. Using imagery collected by UK satellite Deimos-2 and UAE satellite Dubaisat-2, the Dubai Government is able to observe, monitor and detect different types of changes in vegetation, water, road networks and buildings. This project, named Safiy, demonstrates the UK’s commitment to the MBRSC by bringing space technology back to Earth in support of the Dubai Smart Cities initiative

The space race in the 1960s was often marked by national one-upmanship, particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union. That competitive edge had its benefits, not least in making countries strive and stretch to take the next extraordinary leap in space exploration.

Space travel and exploration and the use of space-based technologies to improve our lives are now more likely to be characterised by international collaboration. But our ambition to take those extraordinary leaps remains. With that in mind, I’m excited to imagine the potential, the uncharted frontiers and the many benefits that the UAE and UK can realise together.

Philip Parham is the UK ambassador to the UAE