A team of Israeli scientists launched what will be the first privately funded mission to land on the moon on Feb. 22, 2019. The craft, named “Beresheet” (Hebrew for “in the beginning” and the first portion of the Torah) was built by an Israeli nonprofit company called SpaceIL, which raised $100 million for its mission, much of it through philanthropic donations. “Beresheet” was lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Once “Beresheet” touches down, in several weeks in Mare Serenitatis, a basaltic plain on the northern hemisphere of the moon, it will measure the magnetic field of the moon to help understand how it formed.

Israel is the leading force in the regional “space race” and the current “moon mission” will prove a significant milestone, but Israel is not alone and several countries in the region including: Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are developing their own “space programs.”

The Middle East is characterized by conflicts between the regional powers. The space competition is part of the completion for regional dominance and considered as a fundamental component of national security.

Israel and Iran are among only about 10 countries in the world that are capable of building their own satellites, launching them from their territories and maneuvering them in space.

Iran

Iran has said that it plans to send two satellites, “Payam” and “Doosti,” into the orbit. [1] On Jan. 15, Iran failed to put into orbit the satellite, “Payam,” after it was unable to reach the required velocity. Iranian Communications Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari said the rocket carrying the satellite “failed to reach the required speed in the third stage, even though it succeeded in the first two stages of the launch.”[2]

On Feb. 6, Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps it develop ballistic missiles. Satellite imagery of a space launch center in northern Iran suggests a second attempt to launch a satellite has failed. Satellite images released on Feb. 6 showed a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran’s Semnan province. Images from next day showed the rocket was gone with what appears to be burn marks on its launch pad. Iran has not acknowledged conducting such a launch.[3]

Iran, which considers its space program a matter of national interest and pride, has said its launches and missile tests were not violations and would continue.

On Feb. 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif revealed that his country failed again to launch a satellite into space. Speaking to NBC News, he said that it was the second failed attempt in the past two months.[4]

Iran usually displays space achievements in February during the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year’s 40th anniversary comes amid Iran facing increasing pressure from the United States under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.[5]

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Iran’s plans for sending satellites into orbit demonstrate the country’s defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.[6]

Saudi Arabia

Iran’s adversary, Saudi Arabia, has boosted efforts to expand its space program through the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Unlike Iran, Riyadh has no budgetary constraints impeding its long-term space ambitions, and can rely on the support of the United States, France, China and Russia.

On Feb. 5, Saudi Arabia successfully launched the first Saudi satellite for communications (SGS-1). The satellite was launched by Arianespace from the Guiana Space Center on an Ariane 5 rocket.

The Saudi satellite for communications (SGS-1)

Saudi Arabia successfully launched on Feb. 5, the first Saudi satellite for communications (SGS-1). The operation was carried out by Arianespace. The satellite was launched from the Guiana Space Center on an Ariane 5 rocket, which also carried into orbit the GSAT-31 satellite for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), as well as  the Hellas Sat 4 (HS-4).[7] GSAT-31 and SGS-1-HS-4 are designed to operate for at least 15 years, Arianespace representatives said.[8]

A team from the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), developed the satellite in collaboration with Lockheed Martin. The SGS-1, which is the first satellite of its kind to be owned by the kingdom, will provide secure communications, Internet connectivity and television signal across the region. Ground stations in Saudi Arabia, which will be operated and controlled by Saudi national personnel, will operate and control the satellite.[9]

The UAE space program has seen ambitious initiatives that include the astronaut program and the Emirates Mars Mission.

The Saudi communications satellite employs hybrid (electric and chemical) propelling systems that have helped to reduce the satellite’s weight while increasing its life expectancy. It weighs 6.5 tons and has a life expectancy of about 20 years. It also uses advanced technologies enabling it to provide highly secured and anti-interference telecommunications.[10]
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the development in 2018 and placed a signed letter, headed “above the clouds” to be placed inside the rocket before takeoff.

Executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International Richard Edwards lauded his company’s strategic partnership with Riyadh, saying: “The successful launch is a first step in our unique partnership with KACST and Saudi Arabia, which is established on innovation, science, technology and human-resources development”.[11]

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the most ambitious space program has been launched by the UAE government with the country’s first fully government-owned satellite, “DubaiSat-1,” sent into space in 2009.

The UAE recognized the importance of space for its knowledge-based economy. It launched the National Space Program on April 12, 2017, under which the UAE will prepare Emirati cadres specialized in airspace sciences. The country’s investments in space technologies have already exceeded $5.4 billion.[12]

The UAE space program has seen ambitious initiatives that include the astronaut program and the Emirates Mars Mission.

The decision to stick with a Russian manufacturer and China for the Egyptian remote sensing satellite might be more about Egyptian geopolitics than just the need for a reliable satellite-imaging system.

Leaders have announced ambitious plans to send an unmanned probe to Mars. The probe, which has been named “Hope,” will be the first Arab mission to another planet. Its mission is to sample Mars’ atmosphere and track how it changes over features such as canyons, volcanoes and deserts as well as over time. The “Hope” probe would touch down on Mars by 2021, in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of when seven emirates came together to form the UAE. [13]

On Sept. 6, 2017, the UAE launched its ambitious plan to send Emirati astronauts into space. Young Emiratis have been invited to register for the UAE Astronaut Program. The UAE selected in September 2018 the first two astronauts to go on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The astronaut program would make the UAE one of only a handful of states in the Middle East to have sent a person into space.

The first Arab in outer space was Saudi Arabia’s Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on a U.S shuttle mission in 1985. Two years later, Syrian air force pilot Muhammed Faris spent a week aboard the ex-Soviet Union’s Mir space station.[14]

Egypt

Egypt has decided to join the world space club and the decisions to form Egypt’s Space Agency and to build EgyptSat-A, are significant steps to achieve this strategic goal.

The Egyptian satellite program has both scientific and military implications. Egypt highlighted the civilian aspects of the satellites, but the EgyptSat-2 satellite was designed to provide high-resolution imagery for the Egyptian military and other government agencies in the country.

The decision to stick with a Russian manufacturer and China for the Egyptian remote sensing satellite might be more about Egyptian geopolitics than just the need for a reliable satellite-imaging system.

On Aug. 13, 2018, Egypt and China signed mutual letters for the implementation of a satellite named EgyptSat-A. The Chinese grant hits $45 million for the remote sensing Earth observation satellite built by the Russian RSC Energeia.

The previous Egyptian satellite EgyptSat-2 was launched in April 2014, and it was lost in 2015. The satellite was taking pictures of the planet in the visible and infrared spectrum with panchromatic and multi-spectral modes.

The United States and its allies worry the same satellite-launching technology could be used to develop long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.

According to Russian press reports, EgyptSat-A will have improved performance capabilities compared to the failed EgyptSat-2. In particular, the replacement satellite will feature an improved electro-optical system and onboard control systems, high-speed radio links and solar panels with increased efficiency.

RSC Energia will produce the vast majority of components for EgyptSat-A, compared to Egyptsat-2 where 60 percent of the components were manufactured in Egypt.

Egypt and Russia intended to launch the new Egyptian satellite by 2019, from a Russian space base in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Summary

Iran’s space program is authorized and guided over the long term by a Supreme Space Council, which reports to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.

Iran, which considers its space program a matter of national interest and pride, has said the launches and missile tests were not violations and would continue.

Iranian officials often discuss space and missile developments simultaneously, perhaps indicating the parallel nature of the program. They have openly admitted that the Shahab missile system has been used as the basis for Iran’s space-launch vehicle.

The United States and its allies worry the same satellite-launching technology could be used to develop long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.[15]

In Saudi Arabia, the space project is part of the kingdom’s Saudi Vision 2030 that aims to diversify the economy away from oil and to localize strategic technologies in the Kingdom. The Kingdom seeks through the space and aeronautical technology program to achieve a regional leadership in this vital sector relying on its preeminent position and vital capabilities that will allow the country to obtain its objective. KSA Space Program should serve the national needs and sustainable development and contribute to the transformation to a knowledge-based society.

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel, who today serves as director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya

Notes

[1] “Payam” means “message” in Farsi, while Doosti means “friendship.”

[2] “Images suggest Iran launched satellite despite U.S. criticism,” Al Arabiya, Feb. 7, 2019.

[3] “Satellite Imagery Suggests 2nd Iranian Space Launch Has Failed,” NPR, Feb. 6, 2019.

[4] “Iran Announces Second Failed Satellite Launch,” Asharq Al Awsat, Feb. 17,2019.

[5] “Images suggest Iran launched satellite despite U.S. criticism,” Al Arabiya, Feb. 7, 2019.

[6] “Iran launches satellite that failed to reach orbit,” Al Arabiya, Jan. 15, 2019.

[7] “Saudi Arabia launches new communication satellite,” The National, Feb. 6, 2019.

[8] Mike Wall, “Ariane 5 Rocket Launches Satellites Into Orbit for Saudi Arabia and India,” Space.com, Feb. 5, 2019. 

[9] “Saudi Arabia Launches First Communications Satellite,” Asharq Al Awsat, Feb. 6, 2019.

[10] “Saudi Arabia Launches First Communications Satellite,” Asharq Al Awsat, Feb. 6, 2019.

[11] “Saudi Arabia Launches First Communications Satellite,” Asharq Al Awsat, Feb. 6, 2019.

[12] National Space Program, government.ae, the official portal of the UAE government.

[13] David Reid, “This Arab country says it’s on track to go to Mars within three years,” CNBC, Nov. 15, 2017.

[14] “UAE announces first astronauts to go to space,” Ahram Online, Sept. 3, 2018.

[15] “Images suggest Iran launched satellite despite U.S. criticism,” Al Arabiya, Feb. 7, 2019.