The UAE and the future of space ports: what you need to know

Transforming Dubai's second airport into a 'cosmic hub' is more about planning, air traffic control and logistics than blasting rockets into space

Virgin Galactic pictured in 2013. and Clay Center Observatory
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What exactly is a cosmic aviation hub? Dubai announced on Wednesday that Al Maktoum Airport will be one - handling a combination of conventional, supersonic and space planes. No timeframe was given but this new hub has been called a "multi-mode super port". What's needed to turn Maktoum into such an airport? The question is not so much about the facility but one of regulations, aircraft technology, logistics, air traffic control and planning.

The airport now:

Al Maktoum (Dubai World Central) opened in 2010. Only a small number of passenger services currently operate such as flydubai and Hungarian low-cost Wizz Air. Most traffic is cargo. It will eventually grow to have five runways, three passenger terminals, a logistics centre and public transport links. The runway is 4,500 metres long and can accommodate the world’s largest regular aircraft. It welcomed the Antonov An-225 Mriya, a six engine monster and the world’s largest plane, in 2016. It can also handle Airbus A380s, Boeing 777s and could in theory handle supersonic and space planes. In the long run, Al Maktoum is expected to replace Dubai International (DXB) as the emirate’s major airport.

Concorde takes off from Heathrow airport November 7, 2001. David Parker / Getty Images
Concorde takes off from Heathrow airport November 7, 2001. David Parker / Getty Images

Supersonic and hypersonic aircraft

The last commercial supersonic aircraft was Concorde and it was retired by operators Air France and British Airways in 2003 because of spiralling costs and a crash in 2000 that killed all on board. Resurrecting supersonic travel (faster than the speed of sound or 1,235 km/h) is therefore, more about aircraft technology, regulations and public demand. Some are trying to bring back supersonic jet travel including Aerion, Boom and Sonicstar. "Aerion is closest to the market with an engine maker (GE) and partner (Lockheed Martin) and so could be flying in the next decade," said Alan Peaford, editor of Arabian Aerospace.

“Supersonic is proven technically. [Look at] Concorde and Tupolev but neither were commercially successful and nor did regulations help. Fifty years later and many of those regulations are still in place and Aerion or Boom still have an uphill struggle to get the approvals.”

Supersonic means speeds that exceed Mach 1, while hypersonic means speeds above Mach 5 which Mr Peaford believes is still a long way off despite Boeing floating some ideas for its hypersonic airframe. “Realistically we are looking at another 15 to 20 years for hypersonic to become reality and only then if a market is proven.”

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM - MAY 17: A two-lane blacktop road leads to the West entrance of Spaceport America, the site of Colombia Pictures' "After Earth" Press Junket on MAY 17, 2013. Spaceport America is located south of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images)
The entrance of Spaceport America in New Mexico. Steve Snowden / Getty Images

Space planes and spaceports

Spaceports are not the stuff of science fiction and are already in operation. The Mojave Air and Space Port in California has been running for years, while Spaceport America in New Mexico can handle horizontal and vertical launches and its runway is actually shorter than Maktoum’s at 3,657 metres. Virgin Galactic has operated from both Spaceport America and the Mojave facility and it wants to begin commercial spaceflights within the next few years, while UP Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace have used Spaceport America. In Virgin’s case, SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital spacecraft, is launched from a mothership known as White Knight Two before gliding back to Earth and performing a conventional landing. The Virgin Galactic service has yet to start and has faced problems including a fatal crash in 2014. Spaceport America is also going through lean times. But other countries are also trying to establish spaceports. In Scotland for example, technology firms are looking at the feasibility of turning the former Royal Air Force base at Machrihanish into a spaceport while Virgin had previously considered Abu Dhabi. It’s still unclear if Maktoum will have a facility for vertical rocket launches but companies such as SpaceX have developed rockets that can take off and land from the same position.

The WhiteKnightTwo mothership, carrying SpaceShipTwo, performs a flyover during an event commemorating the completion of the Virgin Galactic Spaceport America runway in Upham, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010. Virgin Galactic plans to start test flights next year and will offer commercial space travel within five years, the Wall Street Journal reported in March. Photographer: Christ Chavez/Bloomberg
The WhiteKnightTwo mothership, carrying SpaceShipTwo, over New Mexico, in 2010. Christ Chavez / Bloomberg

The challenges

Could a space plane operated by the likes of Virgin Galactic land at Maktoum? “The simple answer is yes,” said Mr Peaford. Commercial space travel could even start before the return of supersonic aircraft. But the question is one of regulation, air traffic control and planning. The skies over the Middle East are getting increasingly busy. “It is bad enough trying to get into the UAE’s crowded airspace without a spaceship charging in among all that A380 wake turbulence, but that is not a problem that cannot be served by proper planning,” he said.

Maktoum will also have the ability to handle the ground services, supply rocket fuel and surmount the logistical problem. Howard Tonks, an aviation veteran and chief commercial officer of Falcon Aircraft Recyling in the UAE, points to aircraft in the United States already being used for training and entertainment by flying in parabolic curves, climbing and diving steeply enabling passenger to experience weightlessness during the flight.

“There is no reason why this cannot be done from the proposed location at Dubai World Central,” he said. “Strata at Al Ain are building composite aircraft structures for aircraft manufacturers, maybe there’s a future for construction of space vehicles right here in the UAE.”

More details about the plans for Maktoum are expected to be announced in the coming months. “It is good the UAE is sticking its hand up for this challenge,” said Mr Peaford.

“It is doable.”


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