DELVING BEYOND EARTH’S ORBIT

Abu Dhabi 2019 | AEROSPACE & DEFENSE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, on the National Space Vision, Mars 2117 project, and establishing a human space flight program.

Dr. Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi is considered one of the most qualified national leaders within the space industry, known for his leadership, management and strategic planning skills. He is an expert within satellite communications, information systems, and modern defense concepts. He led the creation of the UAE Space Agency, which was established in 2014. Al Ahbabi has tremendous experience in civil and military work and academia. He became a telecommunications officer for the UAE Armed Forces until he reached the rank of Major. During that period he also worked as a coordinator for Dubai Internet City until 2000, then as a telecommunications officer and a project manager for Yahsat military division from 2005 to 2012. He has a PhD in communications from the University of Southampton, UK.

How has the mandate of the UAE Space Agency adapted to the evolution of the space sector?

The entire UAE space program has established roots and can be credited to the late Sheikh Zayed's vision in the 1970s, when he started asking questions about space missions. At that time, there was no specific program, though there was an underlying interest in educating people. In 1997, Thuraya Telecommunications Company was set up, the first mobile satellite communications company that now owns and operates two geostationary satellites. Then, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology was launched, which later merged with Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. Mubadala established YahSat in 2007, and the government realized it needed an umbrella in 2014 to oversee all these players, creating the UAE Space Agency, and outlined its mission to Mars as part of its National Space Vision. For the government, the most important thing has been the journey, not the destination. We try to include a scientific purpose to the entire journey to understand what learning lessons can be transferred to Earth. We need to team up with the international space community to ask big questions not specific to countries, but to humanity.

What major learning points is the UAE Space Agency taking from the financial and legal framework being set up for the Mars mission?

We were mandated by the government to create a sustainable space program and needed to work by the book. We are working on a Space Law and will be one of the few countries with a comprehensive space regulatory framework. Our space program is for peaceful reasons and requires long-term planning, focusing on human capacity and the next space engineers. This is where we work with universities and research centers, and push for social media and awareness campaigns.

How does the UAE Space Agency seek to strike a balance between transferring technology skills and knowledge and maintaining control over its intellectual property?

We are hungry for knowledge, and cooperating with international space agencies provides a fantastic overlap. We have signed over 20 agreements and have established an international advisory committee. We meet twice a year, helping us engage with different stakeholders.

Where should further research efforts and investments be made and why?

The government has announced the Mars 2117 project, which aims to establish the first city on Mars. Our environment is not that different from Mars; we face the same challenges. For example, Mars today is a desert, with no atmosphere; however, we can see and tell from the structure of the planet that there was once water there. If the best scientists in the world are employed to solve issues on Mars, spin-off solutions will be applied on Earth. That is how most inventions in fact come to be used in our daily lives. This is why the UAE government is building a Mars scientific city in Dubai.

What is the best way forward to attract and promote young Emiratis to become space scientists and technology pioneers?

The UAE has announced a plan to establish a human space flight program to develop astronauts. These are all big projects that have spurred a great deal of interest from young people. Our regional neighbors are looking on with curiosity at our efforts. Most international space agencies come here because they appreciate what we are doing.

How can the UAE spacy industry develop a solid private ecosystem?

We are putting in place the right regulation to attract and protect investment in the UAE space program. The government is funding exploration missions, though we want to see the private sector play a greater role. I assisted in the launch of Al Yah 3 satellite, which will provide vital connectivity to over 600 million people in Brazil and South America. We are also looking at strategies to attract international investors.