Russia’s plan to build an independent space station in low-Earth orbit will help create more opportunities for the UAE, an Emirati space chief has said.
Last month, Russia announced plans to quit the International Space Station and build its own, with hopes that the first phase would be completed within this decade.
Salem Al Marri, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), told The National that the UAE would benefit from more space stations, as it looks to spearhead more human spaceflights in future.
The country has already launched its first Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri to the ISS in 2019, on a Soyuz rocket for an eight-day trip.
Next spring, a SpaceX rocket will launch Sultan Al Neyadi into space for a six-month stay on the floating science laboratory.
“I think Russia has always been committed to the ISS until 2024 and what I’ve seen recently is that they’ve reiterated that commitment and it could even go to 2025 or 2026,” he said.
“I think they will make sure that they’re still on the ISS until they launch their new station.
“I think it’s good. The more stations you have, the more opportunities for a country like us.
“We’re not building a space station, rockets or capsules to send astronauts any time soon. It's a humongous budget and significant technical challenge.”
A new era of space travel
Space agencies are preparing for a future without the ISS, which is likely to be retired at the end of this decade.
Operating for more than 20 years, it is a joint project by Nasa, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan’s space agency Jaxa and the Canadian Space Agency.
Moscow hopes to launch the first module of the new Russian Orbital Service Station by 2028 — two years before US space agency Nasa plans to retire its segment on the ISS.
Meanwhile, private companies in the US are looking to commercialise low-Earth orbit and build space stations that would offer access to government astronauts.
Blue Origin, Axiom and Nanoracks are some companies that have announced plans of building a station.
Mr Al Marri said they are tracking the progress these companies are making, as the UAE also prepares for a future without the ISS.
“We're looking very closely at what they're doing,” he said.
“Another element that we’re looking at are commercial players like SpaceX and their plans to go to the Moon. They’ve got ideas with Starship.
“And we're also looking at what Nasa and other partners are doing, and how can we be part of that.”
The UAE also held discussions with Nasa on the Artemis programme, which aims to build a sustainable human presence on the Moon.
China is building its Tiangong Space Station in low-Earth orbit, with Chinese astronauts already living on board.
Mr Al Marri said the UAE has not held any conversations with China on sending Emirati astronauts to its space station, but it is open to working with them.
“We haven't spoken to China about human spaceflight,” he said.
Emirati astronauts are mission-ready
“The UAE has agreements with many countries, and we are open to work with anybody.
“Whoever meets the national objectives of the UAE, in terms of giving opportunities to go to space, doing unique things, if China can provide that as well, those discussions would happen. We're open to it.”
The UAE has four Emiratis in its astronauts corps, including Nora Al Matrooshi, the first female Arab astronaut.
Ms Al Matrooshi, a former mechanical engineer, and helicopter pilot Mohammed Al Mulla are currently participating in Nasa's basic astronaut training programme.
Once they graduate, they will be eligible for future US-led space missions.
Dr Al Neyadi and Maj Al Mansouri graduated this year.
"We have an astronaut corps that is fully trained for all kinds of missions," Mr Al Marri said.
"They're continuously training, whether it's in Russia, Japan, Canada, Europe, and in the US. The only place they haven't trained in is in China."