TBY talks to Salem Al Marri, Assistant Director General of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), on the UAE's space program, training future astronauts, and developing earth observation satellites.

Salem Al Marri
Salem Al Marri currently holds the position of Assistant Director General for scientific and technical affairs at MBRSC, and was the project manager for the satellite projects DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2, the first two UAE satellites launched into space in 2009 and 2013, respectively. He also represents MBRSC at international and local conferences and plays a significant role in areas of cooperation between MBRSC and a number of external bodies involved in the space sector.

What are the key aims of your new initiatives?

The UAE national space program consists of four main areas of focus or programs. Our aim is to build a sustainable and ambitious space sector in the UAE, which will promote scientific innovation and technological advancement. One of these areas is the national satellite program. We have been working on different satellite projects for the past 12-13 years including DubaiSat-1, DubaiSat-2, KahlifaSat, and Nayif-1. Currently, we have reached a point where we can develop and build our own satellites. The second program is the UAE national astronaut program, which started in 1Q2017. It is an initiative of the UAE government to launch a sustainable astronaut program, whereby we choose the best of the best. We will have an astronaut corps for the next 25-30 years. The third program is the Mars 2117 initiative, which was launched by the UAE government and will be led by MBRSC. It is a long-term plan that we call a generational plan because three to four generations will work to create a sustainable colony on Mars in 100 years' time. The fourth and final initiative is the Emirates Mars Mission. This will be the first object to leave Earth's orbit sent from a country in this region.

How are you developing and training astronauts?

Becoming an astronaut requires a unique and rare skillset. There are certain countries that have the capability to send astronauts into space as well as to train these astronauts. We want to do these things at the same time. We have to partner with countries like the US or Russia, or the EU, which have training facilities to train theses astronauts. At the same time, we want to work with these partners to bring those training facilities to the country or at least execute the proficiency training here so that we can do as much of it as we can in country. The first batch would be trained abroad, and the future batches and proficiency training will be conducted here. Before an astronaut goes up into space, he/she may have to be trained for at least two or three years just for that mission. We want to have a broad range of astronauts with a different range of skillsets, and then go from there; they could be military test pilots, scientists, engineers, and doctors, teachers, and so on.

What are the satellites being used for these days?

MBRSC had two goals when we first began the national satellite program. These were to first develop and train a team so they are able to build and design satellites in the UAE. At the same time, the goal was to develop satellites that would be useful to the UAE government and private entities, and provide a service. What we focused on developing was earth observation satellites rather than communication satellites as the latter already existed in the UAE. Our satellites take images of the globe that can be used for disaster monitoring, vegetation tracking, urban planning, and environmental monitoring, an example of which would be the water levels in dams after rainfall. These kinds of services are provided by DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2. The difference in the satellite is the improved resolution of the images so the detail is much better.

How do space ambitions fit into the happiness and smart city agenda?

Satellite and space technology is in everything that we do today. Dubai seeks to be one of the smartest cities and looks to become a green city, with around 50% of all our power by 2050 solar. As an example, the easiest way to track that is to take an image of Dubai in February, take an image of Dubai in March, and then see if there are any new solar panels.