A recent history of Middle Eastern space exploration

In the past few years, the Middle East has made significant strides in the field of space exploration. In February 2021the UAE became the first Middle East country to successfully send a spacecraft into orbit around Mars and only the fifth country to do so. Achievements like this are the result of a long history of space exploration in the region. 

In February 2021, the UAE Space Agency became the first Arab country to send a spacecraft to another planet. This spacecraft was part of the Mars Exploration Program, which began in 2013. The program’s goals are to build capacity in the region, increase knowledge about the “Red Planet”, and inspire the next generation of scientists. 

The UAE Mars spacecraft will travel to Mars with the ExoMars 2020 rover, which is part of a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities. The UAE Mars spacecraft is the first spacecraft ever to be fully designed, built, and operated by a developing country. 

It is also the Arab world’s first attempt at interplanetary exploration. In the 2020 launch window, the ExoMars 2020 mission will deliver the UAE Mars spacecraft to Mars. The spacecraft will then enter orbit around Mars and study its atmosphere as the ExoMars rover explores the planet’s surface. The UAE Mars mission will study the planet’s atmosphere for at least six months, and it will remain operational for one Martian year.

In October 2018, Saudi Arabia announced its plans to launch a satellite in 2021. The satellite will be Saudi Arabia’s first foray into the field of space exploration, and it will be used to advance several fields of science. The Saudi Arabian Space Authority (SASA) has not yet specified what kind of satellite it plans to launch, but it said that the satellite will be used to improve air traffic control, disaster management, and telecommunications. SASA also said that the satellite will be used to study climate change and advance scientific research. The satellite will be built by Airbus and will be positioned in a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometres above Earth. 

In March 2021, Saudi Arabia launched two satellites, including the first one to be launched by a local university. CubeSat is the first satellite to be launched by a Saudi university. It is an educational project aiming to prepare and qualify engineering students and the university in the field of satellite design and programming. In total, KACST has launched 17 satellites during the past 20 years. The country has said that it plans to launch additional satellites in the future.

The history of space exploration in the Middle East began in the 1950s when the then Soviet Union and the United States began to explore the possibility of sending satellites into space. By the early 1960s, both countries had successfully launched satellites into orbit, and the race to the Moon had begun.

At the time, most of the global space exploration efforts were concentrated in the United States and the Soviet Union, but several Middle Eastern countries also began to explore the field. 

In the late 1950s, the Arabsat, an organization now known as the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (ARSSAT), was founded. The organization was intended to facilitate the exchange of information between countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 

In the 1960s, the Iraqi Space and Rocket Society (ISRS) was founded. And in the 1970s and 1980s, Iran also made attempts to launch satellites. Although many of these organizations existed in the past, they are no longer active.

If Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s recent efforts are any indications, the Middle East may soon emerge as a significant player in the field of space exploration. However, there are significant barriers that could impede this progress. 

First and foremost, the countries in the region do not have their own launch sites. Currently, they must launch their satellites from European or Russian facilities, which increases their costs and makes it more difficult to schedule launches. In the future, the Middle East could address this issue by building its own launch sites. 

Another important issue is funding. To advance existing efforts and launch new projects, Middle Eastern countries need additional funding. They also need to attract new talent to the field of space exploration. This will require significant investment in education and outreach programs. Going forward, Middle Eastern governments must also find ways to work together to advance their shared interests in the field of space exploration.

In recent years, the Middle East has entered a new era of space exploration. Several countries in the region are now actively exploring the possibility of sending satellites into orbit. As these countries continue to make advances in this field, it will become increasingly clear that the Middle East has a bright future in space.

Image Credit: NASA