Two universities now offer master’s degree in space science in a first for UAE

More students want to build a career in space science, engineering and astronomy

Two universities in the UAE introduced a master's programme in space sciences to cater to an increasing number of students interested in pursuing a degree in the field.

The University of Sharjah and the UAE University in Al Ain have, this academic year, welcomed their first batch of students for the course.

Academics said the Middle East's thriving space industry was inspiring young people to follow a career path in disciplines such as space science, engineering and astronomy.

The increasing interest of students for the space sciences is fuelled by the important and inspiring space sciences programme of the UAE

“The increasing interest of students for the space sciences is fuelled by the important and inspiring space sciences programme of the UAE,” said Prof Nouar Tabet, dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Sharjah.

“This is good news because this national initiative is going to generate a huge amount of data that will need to be analysed.”

The university started its master’s programme in astronomy and space science this academic year, with six students registered so far and more expected to join.

It has 95 students enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate courses that offer a career in space science, such as applied physics, petroleum geophysics and remote sensing.

A decade ago, only 10 students were enrolled in these programmes. Since then, the university has recorded slow but steady growth.

In 2018, there were 32 students enrolled in applied physics. This year, there are more than 50.

The numbers are still low compared to international figures, but are gradually increasing each year.

"We should not forget that the UAE space programme is very young," said Ilias Fernini, vice general director for research laboratories and scientific projects at the Sharjah Academy of Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology – a centre overseen by the university.

“It just started in 2014 with the creation of the UAE Space Agency. Compared to other international space agencies that date back to the mid-20th century, the UAE has crossed a tremendous step.”

The UAE launched its first Emirati-built satellite KhalifaSat in 2018 and sent the first Emirati astronaut, Maj Hazza Al Mansouri, into space in 2019.

The country launched the Mars Hope probe this summer.

Mr Ilias said he believed the number of students pursuing space-related degrees and universities offering them will increase significantly once the space sector matures.

"The UAE must look into having satellite and space rocket launch capabilities, design and construct robotics for lunar and Martian missions, and apply artificial intelligence and machine learning for space applications," he said.

"This is the future trend and these programmes will attract hundreds of young minds to science, technology, engineering and maths education. The UAE can be a real space hub for the Mena world."

The Sharjah Academy of Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology admits 20 interns from the university every semester to work across its five laboratories, including a meteorite centre, cube satellites, space weather and ionosphere and radio astronomy.

The UAE University is also offering master's degrees in space sciences, with courses such as spacecraft systems, space physics, astronomy and astrophysics, remote sensing of terrestrial and planetary surfaces and digital image processing in remote sensing.

Because of a growing interest among students, a space centre in Al Ain, overseen by the university, will expand many of its projects.

It will soon have a fully equipped satellite assembly, integration and testing centre that can be used by students for practical learning, as well as a radio array observatory, as reported by The National last week.

Students will be able to work on major projects, including the first pan-Arab satellite, known as 813, and two navigation satellites.

It is not only space science degrees that build a career path in space; engineering degrees also help.

Sarah Al Amiri, head of the UAE Space Agency and the Emirates Mars Mission science team leader, graduated from the American University of Sharjah with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in computer engineering.

She started her career at the department of research and development at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, where she worked as a programme engineer on Dubai Sat-1 and Sat-2 – the UAE's first satellites.

Before the UAE Cabinet reshuffle this year, she was the Minister of State for Advanced Sciences.

Many universities in the Emirates offer undergraduate degrees in engineering but only a handful have degrees in aerospace engineering.

Amity University Dubai started its four-year aerospace engineering programme in 2015 with more than 15 students.

“After the programme launched, we had a growth of over 50 per cent every academic year,” said Dr Vajahat Hussain, chief executive of Amity Education Middle East.

"We have over 50 students currently studying aerospace engineering at Amity University Dubai and have seen two batches of aerospace engineering students graduate.

"We have also seen a 30 per cent increase in student numbers over the past two years.”

The university has a ground control station where students can track satellites and predict weather patterns and pollution levels by analysing data.

An aerospace engineering graduate from the university, Sahith Reddy Madara, works at the Sharjah Academy of Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology as a research engineer, and several other former students work internationally in space-related fields.

"As an emerging area of study, the field of space science and interest around the profession has increased over the past two years," said Dr Hussain.

"The region’s investment in space research and development is the main motivating factor for students who have enrolled in our aerospace engineering programme."

Other universities that offer space science, maths or engineering degrees in the UAE are Khalifa University, New York University Abu Dhabi and the American University of Ras Al Khaimah.