Call for pan-Arab space agency

Arab countries should create an integrated space agency to slash the cost of putting satellites into orbit, experts say.

The view of Dubai's Palm Jumeirah project from space.
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DUBAI // Arab countries should create an integrated space agency to slash the cost of putting satellites into orbit, security experts have been told. Dr Omar al Emam, of the Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation, said the time was right to form the Middle East and North Africa Space Agency. Dr Emam said it should be a civilian project like the European Space Agency, rather than Nasa in the US, which began as a branch of the military. "There have been discussions about it in the Arab League and several countries have unofficially shown their support," he said. "I think it is a realistic goal. I hope that next year there will be set up a regional organisation to disseminate images from observation satellites and help interpret them, and I think a larger space agency could follow on from that." Speaking outside the National Security Summit in Dubai yesterday, Dr Emam said it would substantially cut the cost of Arab states developing their own space programmes."Countries could share the financial burden so it cost each one tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions, to have a satellite in space," he said. One of the main goals of the agency would be to monitor security and environmental developments in the region, Dr Emam said. He said putting five surveillance satellites into orbit around the equator, rather than from pole to pole as is usually the case, would allow states to monitor shipping, pollution, and security threats throughout the Middle East with accuracy. "The near equatorial region is the only place in the world you can do this," Dr Emam said. "Satellites in polar orbit... can do one pass over a spot every 12 or 24 hours, but with enough satellites orbiting the equator you could have one passing overhead once every 90 minutes." Having satellites pass over an area that often could bring huge benefits, including being able to track the origin and spread of oil spills; track ships and identify if they were at risk of being attacked by pirates; monitor pollution in the air; and track the movement of armies or potential terrorists. Dr Emam said the biggest hurdle was the reluctance of countries to share potentially sensitive satellite images with each other, but he warned the technology was likely to become available to individual states in due course anyway. "The reality of the matter is that if you don't share material and countries do this unilaterally, there is not much you can do to stop them looking at your area," he said. "In that sense it is better to share the data; we might as well join forces and share the cost." Dr Emam was, however, less enthusiastic about the need for a regional space agency to develop its own rockets or put people in to space. "Some countries in the region have had people go into space but that tends to be more for publicity, and at the moment I do not think it is essential," he said. "The main priority is to support our activities on Earth. I don't think it is necessary to develop rockets. It is relatively cheap to launch satellites commercially. "The UK, for example, hasn't got its own launch capability and doesn't really need it. "There is also the consideration that developing such rockets could be seen as a threat by certain countries and it would be better to avoid the hassle." The UAE's first "eye in the sky" satellite, Dubai Sat-1, was completed last month and is due to launch by the end of the year, while plans are already under way to launch a second satellite in 2012. The UAE is also developing plans for a network of communications satellites to be launched from 2010, with ground stations to be built in the desert near Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Earlier in the conference John McCarthy, the director of operations for Abu Dhabi's Critical National Infrastructure Authority, responsible for protecting the emirate's oil and gas facilities, water supplies and other vital infrastructure, said modern economies were so intertwined that countries could be deeply affected by events in other parts of the world. "If you look at cyber-security or maritime supply, these are global systems and threats to them know no country's boundaries," Mr McCarthy said. Jim Turner, a former US congressman, said international terrorism could only be tackled by close co-operation between countries. "That has to be based on mutual respect and a shared commitment to common values," Mr Turner told delegates. The conference, organised by the International Quality & Productivity Center, ends today with speakers expected to give presentations on topics including the threat of biological terrorism, and the effect of the internet on Muslim youth.