MISSION MARS

Dubai 2018 | AEROSPACE & DEFENSE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, on setting up a sustainable space program, cooperating with international space agencies, and developing local astronauts.

Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi
BIOGRAPHY
Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi is one of the most qualified national leaders within the space industry, known for his leadership, management, and strategic planning skills. 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.

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 also mandated by the government to create a sustainable space program and to do so we need quality and precision, which requires us to work by the book. People are busy with social and political problems, though we are trying to show our regional neighbors that even in these hard times, through science and technology, one can regain world respect. 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 it 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 need to work and engage with people in a practical way. We send people to work with international agencies to be exposed to what other scientists are doing and the best practices. We are active; we have signed over 20 agreements and have established an international advisory committee. We want to receive advice from people from all over the world, each with their own sectorial knowledge, within the space industry. We meet twice a year and they help us engage with different stakeholders.

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

The government has also announced the Mars 2117 project, which aims to establish the first city on Mars. It is a realistic plan to have humans 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 water once existed there. The international science community wants to understand the mystery of why water disappeared to prevent the same from happening here. The Gulf region is similar in some way to Mars' surface. 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 decided to engage in the plan of building a Mars scientific city in Dubai to solve issues.

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 in this small country.

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, similar to YahSat for example, in bringing value and assets into the country. I assisted to 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, working with local governments. We are harvesting the space program to showcase the world our competitive advantage.