01 Mar 2016

Maiden Voyage

UAE’s ambitious, alumni-led space program gets off the ground
by Robert S. Benchley


More than 80 countries have national space programs, spending a collective $64.5 billion in 2014, according to Euroconsult, a global consulting firm specializing in space markets. Approximately a dozen countries—if you count the 22 members of the European Space Agency consortium as one—currently have launch capability, with some also doing a brisk business putting satellites into orbit for other nations. (India, for example, has launched more than 40 satellites into orbit for 19 client countries.)

The newest entrant on the launch pad is the United Arab Emirates, which formally introduced its UAE Space Agency on May 25, 2015, during the fifth Global Space and Satellite Forum in Abu Dhabi. The agency tapped Khaled Al Hashmi (GMP 11, 2011), an aerospace engineer with significant technical-managerial experience, to be director of Space Missions, Science, and Technology Management. In that role, he will be helping the agency and the UAE to develop and manage its short- and long-term space mission projects and to develop the UAE’s capability in science and technology related to the space industry. His first assignment: planning an unmanned mission to Mars in 2021 to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary as a nation.

“The name of our Mars probe will be Hope, and it represents our desire as a nation to contribute to the advancement of mankind through science and technology,” says Al Hashmi. “Hope will orbit Mars and, for the first time, explore the dynamics in its atmosphere on a global scale. The unique combination of instruments and orbital coverage will provide an exciting and completely new understanding of how the Martian atmosphere behaves.”

The UAE already has two satellites in Earth orbit, DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2, with another, Khalifa Sat, to follow in 2017. These satellites are all refrigerator-sized, weigh 440 to 660 pounds apiece, and are packed with sensitive hardware that can provide a variety of services, including environmental monitoring. The Hope, though, gives the UAE real ownership: To date, it has invested $5.5 billion in space, but with a Mars mission in the works, the investment is just beginning. “We are currently in the downstream portion of the space industry,” says Al Hashmi. “Now we are moving upstream.”

The construction and launch of the UAE’s Earth-orbiting satellites required partnerships with other countries. Although the Hope spacecraft will be mostly built by outside subcontractors, the rest of the work will take place at home. “Some of the manufacturing will be done here, the science is here, the project is here, and the universities involved are here,” says Al Hashmi. “This will be a UAE mission all the way.”

The most visible aspect of the mission will be the launch—a first—from Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. If Al Hashmi can pull it off, the mission will be a source of intense national pride for a country that is seeking to use its petroleum wealth to reinvent itself as a modern global competitor. Still, getting to Mars will be a nine-month journey, and lots can go wrong.

“A country can only have one fiftieth anniversary,” says Al Hashmi. “Failure is not an option.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of GMP 11
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