Space experts call for regional agency

Scientists say the Middle East's various research programmes should be brought together under one umbrella to be effective.

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ABU DHABI // Space experts are calling for the creation of a regional agency to bring the Middle East's various programmes together, and help train the next generation of rocket scientists. "Like there's the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we want the Muslim Institute of Technology," said Ahmad al Dousari, the director of space and remote sensing at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.

"As individual countries, we cannot compete with India for instance. India is a huge country with a big budget and a big space programme. We don't even have the manpower to put the programme on its feet." Dr al Dousari is one of several high-profile officials and scientists who are in the capital for the second Global Space Technology Forum, which starts today. The three-day conference is an "opportunity for us as the UAE to get to know what's happening now in the field of space", said one official from the UAE Space Reconnaissance Centre, which is part of the Armed Forces.

He said the UAE space industry had to engage with the global community "to improve ourselves". A regional umbrella agency was needed to co-ordinate the burgeoning sector, said the official. Dr al Dousari said Middle Eastern countries tended to look at space programmes as a "luxury", despite there being many crucial applications for the technology. The result was "fragmented efforts here and there".

"They don't co-ordinate with each other. Things get delayed," he said. "Saudi Arabia has its own programme. Egypt has its own programme. But it's isolated, hidden, not an evolving body." The applications include communications, satellites for imaging, reconnaissance and remote sensing, and monitoring the effects of climate change and oil pollution. In addition, "we have dust in our region. Dust storms are continuous. We can estimate how much rain we have, how much water the crops need, the distribution of fertiliser use," Dr al Dousari said.

The UAE in particular has been a strong investor in space programmes. These range from government-backed projects, such as the launch last July of the DubaiSat-1 satellite by the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology, and commercial ventures such as Mubadala's Yahsat satellites, one of which is scheduled for next year. This summer Aabar, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi Government, bought a 32 per cent stake worth US$280 million (Dh1.28bn) in Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture launched by Sir Richard Branson, which means the world's second commercial spaceport is now scheduled to be built in the emirate.

In February, a consortium of Emirati and international companies announced a plan to build a satellite launch facility in the capital. These infrastructure investments are enticing to outside experts, said Rick Theobald, the commercial director of Streamline Marketing Group, the forum's organisers. "We have experts coming from around the world who are talking in the UAE seriously because of the amount of investments and the amount of interest we have in space technology," he said

An organised regional space sector will be the subject of a discussion on the first day of the event. Tomorrow, experts will discuss the possibility of locally training potential workers in the industry. Michael O'Brien, the assistant administrator of external affairs at Nasa, and Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Arab astronaut, will give keynote addresses today. The National reported yesterday that up to 12 Emirati students will soon join teams involved in Nasa space missions, following a deal between the US space agency and the Arab Youth Venture Foundation, a non-profit group from Ras al Khaimah.