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Middle East Nations Advance on the Space Frontier

Middle East,Human Spaceflight,Astronauts
Mihir Tripathy
Noah Watson
March 21, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

In early March, SpaceX successfully launched the Crew-6 mission.

Crew-6 carried US astronauts Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, Russian Cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi aboard Crew Dragon Endeavour to the International Space Station.

The crew will spend up to 6 months at the orbiting laboratory, conducting scientific research as a part of Expedition 68/69. The mission is a historic first for the Emirates, as it is their first long-duration mission in space. At the end of this mission, Al Neyadi will set the record for the longest time continuously spent in space by an Arab astronaut.

In 2019, under an agreement with Roscosmos, the UAE sent its first astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, onboard the Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. During his time in orbit, Mansoori was part of several scientific experiments and conducted a tour of the orbiting laboratory in Arabic. The mission hoped to inspire and train a new generation of engineers and astronauts as the country plans to expand its reach in space. Two years before this mission, the country didn’t even have an astronaut corps.

In 2017, the Dubai-based government organization, Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, announced an astronaut program — the first of its kind in the Middle East. The country’s first astronaut corps included Hazza Al-Mansoori, Sultan Al Neyadi, Nora Al Matrooshi, and Mohammed Al Mulla. In 2019, Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi were awarded NASA’s Astronaut pins as they were certified for missions aboard the ISS upon their completion of the agency’s basic training program. Both the astronauts were trained for the Crew-6 mission before Al-Neyadi was selected to be a part of a long-duration mission as a mission specialist, while Al-Mansoori acted as backup crew. Al Matrooshi and Al Mulla are currently training in NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for future missions.

To push beyond Earth Orbit, the UAE signed NASA's Artemis Accords, an international treaty that aims for peaceful collaboration and exploration on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As NASA races to land people back to the Moon for the first time in the 21st century, the UAE will be actively involved in this endeavor. The country is in discussions with Boeing to develop the airlock module for the Gateway space station around the Moon, reported first by the UAE’s The National. 

Recently, the UAE also took a significant step towards its Moon exploration program. On December 11, 2022, SpaceX launched the Japanese iSpace Hakuto-R Moon lander on Falcon 9. Onboard the lander is the the UAE’s domestically developed Rashid rover, named in honor of Dubai's late ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Weighing just 10 kilograms, the rover was built by a team of 11 engineers at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center who have been working on this project since 2017.

Hakuto-R is scheduled to land in April at the Atlas Crater, located in the northeast part of the Moon, to the southeast of Mare Frigoris.

Once down at the surface, the Rashid Rover will study properties of lunar regolith, petrography and geology of the Moon, dust movement, and study surface plasma conditions and the Moon's photoelectron sheath. Lunar regolith is one of the major concerns when designing any equipment for lunar exploration. A variety of test samples have been attached to its wheels as a part of the materials adhesive experiment which will test how the regolith interacts with different materials. The rover will also be collecting numerous pictures of the surface, having been equipped with 2 cameras supplied by the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), France’s space agency.

The UAE is also a part of an exclusive club of nations that have successfully deployed a satellite around Mars. Named the Al-Amal probe (“Hope” in Arabic), the orbiter is designed and built in collaboration with the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), Arizona State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. It was launched onboard the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA launch vehicle from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan during the 2020 Hohmann Transfer window, entering Mars’ orbit 7 months later.

The Al-Amal probe was designed specifically to study the Martian atmosphere and its climate. Equipped with an infrared and ultraviolet spectrometer and a multi-band camera, the orbiter will study the atmospheric layers of Mars in detail. The collected data will help study the drastic climatic change in the Martian atmosphere from the time it could sustain liquid water to today, when the atmosphere is so thin water can exist only as ice or vapor. It’ll also provide us with valuable insights into how and why Mars is losing its hydrogen and oxygen into space, and the connection between the upper and lower levels of the Martian atmosphere.

Last year, the UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum unveiled the "Mars 2117 Project”, which aims to develop a city on the red planet by the year 2117. According to the Government of Dubai, the first phase will involve developing the skills and technologies to achieve scientific breakthroughs needed to send humans to Mars in the next decades. A team of Emirati scientists, along with international partners, will develop an international scientific consortium to speed up this research project. 

Saudi Arabia Returns to Human Spaceflight

The largest oil-rich nation is also venturing into global space initiatives, diversifying its platform to sustain itself in the post-oil economy. Saudi Arabia’s space activities have a long history. In 1976, the country was the founder of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, also known as Arabsat, a communications satellite operator which serves exclusively the Arab world. It launched its first satellite, Arabsat 1-A, in 1985 onboard Arianespace's Ariane 3 launch vehicle. A few months later, Arabsat 1-B was launched onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985 as a part of the STS-51G mission. The launch included a seven-member international crew including Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, making him the first Arab to go to space, and the youngest person to fly on the Space Shuttle at the time.

In 2018, the country established its space agency, named the Saudi Space Commission, as part of Prince Salman's Vision 2030 agenda. SSC established the country’s first astronaut program to train Saudi personnel for short and long-duration space missions and to conduct scientific experiments and research.

This summer, the country will be sending 2 of its astronauts on a 10-day mission to the International Space Station. Saudi Astronauts Rayyana Barnawi and Ali al-Qarni will join their American counterparts John Shoffner, and veteran Peggy Whitson as a part of Axiom-2 — the second privately funded mission to the ISS — scheduled to launch onboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon no earlier than May 12. Barnawi will become the first Arab woman to go to space and both the Saudi astronauts will be the first from their country to visit the orbiting laboratory.

When Axiom-2 docks to the ISS, there will be 3 Arabic astronauts onboard — Al Neyadi from UAE and Barnawi and al-Qarni from Saudi Arabia — marking another historical first for the Arab world.

Israel Utilizes Commercial Industry

Israel has a relatively space-rich history after launching their first satellite Ofek-1 in 1988 onboard their domestically developed Shavit launch vehicle, joining an exclusive club of countries that have designed, developed, and launched their own satellite. Shavit is still operational, having last launched in 2020 from Palmachim Airbase, located near the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The rocket is launched into a retrograde orbit, meaning the payload is placed in an orbit having the opposite rotational motion as Earth. Launching in such an orbit almost halves the capability of an already small satellite launch vehicle, but ensures that its debris falls into the Mediterranean Sea and that it does not fire over regional neighboring countries.

In 2003, the country sent its first astronaut — Ilan Ramon — to low earth orbit onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-107 to the International Space Station. Tragically, Columbia disintegrated upon atmospheric re-entry, killing all 7 crew onboard including Ramon.

18 years after the disaster, a former Israeli air force pilot and a businessman, Etyan Stibbe, launched onboard the privately-funded Axiom-1 mission to the International Space Station, becoming the second Israeli citizen to go to space. Stibbe carried with him surviving pages from Ramon’s space diary and even celebrated Passover on the station with matzah that he brought and gefilte fish offered by the Russian astronauts onboard.

The country also has its sights set on the Moon. In 2011, an organization based at Tel Aviv University was established to participate in the Google Lunar X Prize with the goal of landing on the Moon and performing various tasks. Named SpaceIL, it received its initial funding from American philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and the Israel Space Agency. By 2017, SpaceIL was conducting integration and testing of their lunar lander named Beresheet. By 2018, Google ended their contest without declaring any winner, since no team was able to launch to the Moon within the set timeframe. Having secured the necessary funding, SpaceIL continued working on their lander. By 2019, the Beresheet lander was integrated and launched to space onboard the Falcon 9. 

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Once in a parking orbit, the lander performed 4 burns using its main engine to raise its orbit and match the Moon’s apogee. The spacecraft successfully maneuvered itself to lunar orbit before decelerating itself for a soft landing at Mare Serenitatis, one of the primary dark lava seas on the Earth-facing side, located southeast to Mare Tranquillitatis or the Sea of Tranquility, where the first humans on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 landed in 1969. 

During the descent phase, Beresheet’s main engine stopped mid-flight. A command for a system reboot was sent and the engine was back online but it was too late as the lander had lost too much altitude for a soft landing and the spacecraft crash-landed at Mare Serenitatis. The mission was still a huge success for the team, as Beresheet became the first commercial lunar lander to rendezvous and attempt to land at the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Further investigation revealed that an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU2) gyroscope failed during the approach to the landing site, which in turn shut down the engine. An immediate reset of that equipment by the ground control crew was not possible because of a sudden loss of communication with the control network. 

Learning from their failures, SpaceIL announced the company’s second attempt at landing on the Moon, the Beresheet 2, currently scheduled for 2025. With the same budget as the last mission — $100 million — Beresheet 2 will include more cooperation from international partners, with NASA, German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the United Arab Emirates among the 7 countries that have expressed their interest.

The mission will consist of 3 integrated spacecraft: an orbiter and 2 lunar landers. Orbiter, named the “Mothership”, is intended to orbit the Moon for several years and will be used for several scientific experiments. The two landers will descend down to the surface, one to the Earth side and another to the far side of the Moon.

Mihir Tripathy
Noah Watson
March 21, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)