The following is excerpted from The Race to Space: The Story Behind the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, the Home of the UAE National Space Programme, which provides a detailed yet simple history of space exploration in the UAE and the wider Arab world. The book gives a backstory of ancient astronomers from this region and their discoveries, while also exploring modern-day achievements in space science and travel. From MBRSC's first satellite to the Mars Hope Probe, the UAE Astronauts Programme and the plan to build a city on Mars by 2117, the book is a one of a kind resource on the history of the Space Centre as well as of the UAE's National Space Programme.


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Chapter Ten


The month after DubaiSat-2 launched, a new satellite was announced. Although early design proposals had carried the name DubaiSat-3, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum decided to name the new satellite KhalifaSat and the project was announced personally by His Highness in December 2013.

This third MBRSC satellite was to be a very different project indeed. From day one of its conception it was agreed that for this one, MBRSC would go it alone. A new contract was inked with MBRSC’s colleagues and friends at Satrec Initiative which would provide for consultancy and support services as MBRSC developed and built its own satellite.

Work started in Daejeon until the clean rooms at MBRSC were finished and ready to operate, when the development of KhalifaSat moved to the new facility. The new satellite was intended to be a leap ahead in every way, with an upgraded camera, memory system, data transmission capability and positioning systems. Based, like DubaiSat-2 before it, on a Korsch Telescope, the KhalifaSat High-Resolution Camera System (KHCS) would be built with advanced carbon composite materials to reduce weight and increase strength. It would not only enjoy an increased resolution capability (70 cm per pixel panchromatic, 2.98 metres per pixel in multispectum, RGB and Near Infra-Red), but would benefit from upgraded guidance systems that would support stereo and 3D imaging as well as advanced targeting and multipass imaging capabilities.

The KHCS system was also highly accurate. While DubaiSat-2 offered 0.15-degree accuracy, KhalifaSat’s camera can achieve accuracy below 0.01 degrees. It doubles the data storage and download speed of its predecessor, too. And KhalifaSat can not only accurately image a swath 12 kilometres wide by 1,500 kilometres long, but can actually be tilted in flight to simultaneously image three such swathes, giving an effective swathe width of 36 kilometres – enough to image a large city in a single pass.

KhalifaSat would be based, like DubaiSat-2, on the SI-300 bus jointly developed with SI. But it would be lighter, more agile and be capable of space imaging. Although DubaiSat-2 could be used to image space, the operation was a major task and was only performed once, photographing the moon during Ramadan 2015. With KhalifaSat, such an image would be a routine task.

All these upgrades would take place with a satellite MBRSC had undertaken to build by themselves with no outside intervention. Would the team be up to the task?

KhalifaSat passed review stage after review stage, including its Critical Design Review (CDR), in October 2014. Finally, with the MBRSC clean rooms up and running in February 2015, manufacturing the satellite moved to MBRSC. The arrival of the teams from Korea was an emotional moment. KhalifaSat and its engineering team had come home.

Finally, in February 2018, some five years after KhalifaSat was first announced, the satellite was ready to ship to Korea for final testing before being taken to Japan for its launch on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima launch site, this major achievement was celebrated in the presence of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who came to MBRSC’s cleanroom to see off the satellite and thank the team for their efforts. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum was to visit to celebrate receiving the first signal from the satellite when it had been deployed in orbit.


A New Challenge

KhalifaSat had just passed its CDR when the MBRSC team took a phone call with a loaded question. Could they manage to build and operate a mission to Mars?

The question caused a certain degree of consternation. Could they? They were nearing the end of construction on their very first 100 per cent ground-up satellite build and they were feeling confident. And yet, what were the penalties of failure? Constructing an earth imaging satellite was one thing, but a deep space mission to a planet 55 million kilometres away? Let alone the orbital trajectory – one team member worked it out on the back of an envelope. Reaching Mars would mean a 600-million-kilometre flight through deep space.

The idea was exhilarating. The team agreed and MBRSC delivered its answer.


‘Good,’ came the response. ‘Do your feasibility study and submit a 100-day plan.’

Three months later, the team presented. They had talked the idea over with their partners at Satrec Initiative, but the Satrec team wasn’t ready to take on a partnership to develop a deep space mission. However, SI had been in contact with the MAVEN team at LASP, at the University of Colorado Boulder. MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, had been developed by the LASP team working with funding from NASA. Would MBRSC like an introduction?

Talks started between MBRSC and LASP. The American university would be a perfect partner, with existing experience to offer and a charter of academic co-operation and endeavour. Two more American universities were to become academic partners in the mission, Arizona State University and the University of California Berkeley.

Together, the teams reviewed the mission goals and objectives. Several approaches were evaluated, including a lander module (too impractical in the available timescale) and a fly-by of Mars’ moon Deimos (too many mission variables). The teams reviewed the science objectives set by MEPAG (The Mars Exploration and Programme Analysis Group), a body which co-ordinates global Mars research. Which of these objectives were attainable? It was decided to take on a number of questions regarding Mars’ atmosphere and its loss over the past four billion years, questions which remained to be answered following the MAVEN mission. The instrumentation required was reviewed, a spacecraft configuration was proposed and system and sub-system plans were put in place to evaluate the operational requirements and considerations for the mission. It would have to launch in June 2020, the next available window for the mission. Earth and Mars’ orbits align once every two years and June 2018 was an impossible target for launch. Even the five-year time to develop the mission, build the probe and conduct a launch in 2020 was remarkably quick by international standards. It wasn’t the first time that MBRSC was to find its simple management structure and straightforward access to funding would allow it to fast track missions to as much as half the time others would take.

The plan was presented to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The MBRSC response boiled down to three key points. Yes, we can go to Mars. Yes, we can make a sound scientific contribution to humanity’s knowledge of Mars and yes, what’s more, we can arrive in Mars orbit before the UAE’s fiftieth anniversary as a nation, on the 2 December 2021.

‘Then go ahead,’ they were told. The Emirates Mars Mission was born.

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Race to Space is available in both English and Arabic and is priced at AED 75.