Key trends in outer space investments and activities

Overview of civil space program

In 1976, the founder of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, invited a NASA delegation to the UAE. This marked the start of the UAE's vision in building a legacy and contributing to knowledge in astronomy, navigation and outer space. Since then, this vision has rapidly and significantly progressed, through the UAE's firm will, prioritization and substantial support in the development of space-related initiatives, both in the public and private sectors.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), established in 2006 with just five engineers, plays a key role in implementing the UAE National Space Program. As part of this role, the MBRSC builds, develops and operates a number of Earth observation satellites, and generates and analyzes remote-sensing data.

The UAE's space exploration has also evolved substantially, beginning with the launch of the UAE's first satellites for mobile communications (ThurayaSATs 1-3) between 2000 and 2008, to interplanetary space projects and substantial cooperation with traditional leader states in the sphere of space exploration. The major milestones and trends of the UAE's space exploration are as follows:

2000 to present: the launch of communication, observation and research satellites and nanosats (many of which have a ratio of 30-100 percent of components manufactured in the UAE);

  • 2014: the establishment of the UAE Space Agency (UAESA);
  • 2015 to 2016: the founding of the UAE Center for Space Research and Sciences, and the announcement of the National Space Policy;
  • 2017: the launch of the UAE Astronaut Program;
  • 2017: the announcement of the Mars 2117 Program (with the target to establish the first inhabitable human settlement on Mars by 2117), and the UAE Space Strategy;
  • 2019: the adoption of Federal Law No. (12) of 2019 on the Regulation of the Space Sector (UAE Space Law), and the release of the UAE's National Space Strategy 2030;
  • 2019: Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori became the first Arab and Emirati astronaut to travel to the International Space Station on an eight-day space mission;
  • (EMM), consisting of a scientific probe called Hope, to Mars. EMM's aims include orbiting Mars and studying the dynamics in the Martian atmosphere on a global scale, on both diurnal and seasonal timescales. The EMM involved the collaboration between scientists and engineers from multiple countries, including the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom. Through the EMM, the UAE became the fifth country in the world to successfully reach and orbit Mars with its spacecraft.
  • 2020: the announcement of the Emirates Lunar Mission 2024 and the Arab Space Pioneers Program. The Emirates Lunar Mission is part of the new 2021-2031 strategy launched by the MBRSC, which includes the development and launch of the first Emirati lunar rover named "Rashid", after the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, builder of modern Dubai. The Arab Space Pioneers Program is a three-year intensive training program that incubates young talents and aims to expand their career prospects in the region's emerging space technologies.
  • 2021: the announcement of the Emirati Interplanetary Mission 2028.

In 2014, the UAE established the UAESA under Federal Decree No. (1) of 2014 on the Establishment of the Emirates Space Agency. The UAESA is an agency responsible for leading, regulating and coordinating the UAE's growing space sector. This is considered to be a progressive regulatory move to implement unified aims, methods and standards in governing the State's space activity, as well as coordinating the UAE's efforts across the region and globe. The UAESA has the important function of managing, supervising and supporting the UAE's national space sector and assisting with raising awareness on the importance of space technologies, enhancing national capabilities and encouraging space research.

The UAESA acts as a focal point to facilitate discussions between:

  • UAE governmental entities that contribute to the development and achievement of UAE policies, visions, regulations and strategies within their domains;
  • foreign space agencies and international governance bodies that facilitate a growing role for the UAE in the global space community;
  • private sector companies and individuals that directly contribute to the economic growth of the UAE space sector;
  • private sector companies that have the potential to benefit from space sector development, thereby growing the overall UAE economy;
  • international/global space and aerospace companies with active operations in the UAE that enable the UAE's space sector to grow by offering more advanced capabilities;
  • research centers and academic institutions that are critical in driving space research and technology development and preparing the next generation of space experts; and
  • civil society organizations that contribute to increased interest in space among the wider population and support basic space science development.

The UAE Space Strategy and the National Space Policy Framework define the UAESA's objectives as follows:

  • Assess and identify major space capabilities/technologies that can enable space industry growth and economic diversification;
  • Understand ongoing and planned space activities and their alignment with the National Space Policy Framework;
  • Study and identify high-potential options for future space science and exploration missions;
  • Brainstorm/identify potential competitions, prizes and other mechanisms that can spur innovation in the space sector;
  • Identify regional and global collaboration opportunities and major events that can enhance the UAE's position as a regional hub and leader in space;
  • Determine core competencies and curricula needed to develop world-class Emirati space professionals;
  • Analyze shortcomings and potential improvements in infrastructure that can help enable the UAE space sector; and
  • Stay up to date with the latest global and domestic developments and trends in the field of space.

The UAESA is entitled to review the National Space Strategy every five years or as otherwise determined to be necessary.

Funding opportunities

An important development in the UAE's project in fostering home-grown space talent was the establishment of the National Space Fund in 2022, which aims to build national capabilities and competencies, raise the economic contribution to diversifying the national economy and consolidate the UAE's position in the space sector.

Intended to accumulate around AED3bn (US$810m) from the UAESA and the UAE Government, the National Space Fund is designed to develop the infrastructure supporting the space industry and to create an appropriate environment to attract start-ups to the space sector.

In addition, the National Space Fund aim to adopt governance systems to achieve leadership in the space sector, attracting specialized global companies and building partnerships between national and international advanced technology companies.

In order to promote the new economic potential available to Emirati and foreign businesses inside the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA), the first multiple-asteroid tour and landing mission to the main belt, the UAESA has created the "Space Means Business" campaign and announced it in detail in June 2023.

This is due to the agency's pledge to assign at least 50 percent of the total contractual mission to businesses in the private sector.

The Space Means Business campaign will increase its reach among academic institutions, potential start-ups, established participants in the global space industry, and businesses that may adapt their current R&D and operations to the demands of the space sector.

More than 30 possibilities will be presented by the EMA for private businesses to take part in carrying out the scientific mission of the UAE. The prospects encompass the creation of hardware, including ground support equipment as well as electrical, mechanical, and system-wide components. The ground control center for deep space missions, as well as the subsystem designs for the spacecraft and the lander, present several chances for system-level improvement.

Private sector developments

Private sector companies involved in the space industry include, among others:

  • ABS Network;
  • Al Yah Satellite Communications Company P.J.S.C. (YahSat);
  • Cygnus Telecom;
  • Gulfsat Communications Co.;
  • HorizonSat;
  • Network Satellite Technology Trading;
  • Stratign; and
  • Wide Network Solutions Intl. Limited.

National strengths in outer space capability

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) successfully launched DEWA SAT-2, its second nanosatellite, into space aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California in April 2023. The launch demonstrates DEWA's pioneering use of space technologies to enhance its electricity and water network operations, maintenance and planning. DEWA's Research and Development Center collaborated with NanoAvionics in Lithuania to design and develop the 6U nanosatellite, which is equipped with a high-resolution camera capable of capturing Earth observation missions with continuous line-scan imaging in seven spectral bands from a 500-kilometer orbit and containing infrared equipment for greenhouse gas measurement.

The UAE has been investing heavily in commercial space activities, including launching satellites, developing spaceports and attracting foreign investment. In 2019, the UAESA signed an agreement with the United States Federal Aviation Administration to facilitate cooperation in commercial space activities.

The UAE is also investing in space education, with initiatives such as the Mars 2117 program referred to above. The UAESA is also collaborating with universities and research institutions to develop space-related education and training programs. The UAE is actively competing with other countries to attract and retain top talent in the field of space science and technology. This requires not only investing in education and training but also creating a conducive environment for innovation and research.

Outer space regulatory framework

What agencies regulate commercial space activities?

The UAESA has the primary regulatory role in relation to commercial space activities in the UAE.

International space treaties

The UAE has ratified the four core UN space treaties with the exception of the Moon Agreement, namely, the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Rescue Agreement.

Legislation and regulations dealing with outer space activities

In December 2019, the UAE government passed the UAE Space Law. This legislation aims to stimulate investment, implement the necessary safety, security and environmental measures required to enhance space activities and support the commitment of the State to implement the provisions of international conventions relating to outer space.

The UAE Space Law regulates permits for outer space activities, launching and operating space objects, space debris, satellite communication activities, property rights in and extraction of space resources and space exploration.

The UAE Space Law regulates activities which are carried out:

  • within the UAE (including the UAE's establishments outside its territory);
  • from UAE-flagged vessels or aircraft;
  • from space objects registered by the UAE;
  • by a UAE national; or
  • by a company which is headquartered in the UAE.

Are there any licensing or approval requirements for commercial space operators?

The UAESA has a supervisory and regulatory role of granting permits for space activities and space-related activities.

Although the use and allocation of radio-frequency spectrum is regulated and licensed by the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA) under the Federal Law by Decree No. 3 of 2003 Regarding the Organization of the Telecommunications Sector, as amended, the provision of fixed or mobile space communication services or space broadcasting services requires prior consent to be obtained from the UAESA before the TRDA grants the relevant radio-frequency spectrum or telecommunications permit (see Article 16(1) of the UAE Space Law).

Under Articles 14(1) and 28 of the UAE Space Law, a permit from UAESA is required in order to:

  • own a space object;
  • carry out or participate in any "space activities";
  • establish, use or possess facilities or utilities in relation to a space object or carrying out any "space activities"; or
  • carry out or participate in any "other space sector related activities".

One of the factors that distinguishes the UAE Space Law from national space legislation in other jurisdictions is that the UAE Space Law also requires a permit to own space objects, which is a unique viewpoint to take.

Under Article 4(1) of the UAE Space Law, the definition of "space activities" is very wide, capturing:

  • launching or attempting to launch a space object (including activities carried out at the launch site) "up to the stage of the load separation and detachment from the head of the space object";
  • re-entry of space objects;
  • removing or disposing of a space object from orbit;
  • operation of launch sites or re-entry;
  • operation of space objects (including monitoring and controlling space objects);
  • satellite communication;
  • space navigation;
  • remote sensing/Earth observation;
  • space awareness activities (including monitoring and tracking of space objects);
  • space resources exploration or extraction;
  • exploitation and use of space resources for scientific, commercial or other purposes;
  • provision of logistical support services in space;
  • scientific space exploration (including conducting space-related scientific experiments);
  • astronomy;
  • manned spaceflights;
  • long-term human residence in space;
  • construction or use of facilities in space or on the surface of celestial bodies, permanently or temporarily;
  • manufacture, assembly, completion, development, testing, transportation, storage, trade or disposal of space technologies; and
  • any other space activities determined by a Cabinet decision based on the proposal of the board of directors of the UAESA.

On the other hand, the definition of "other space sector related activities" includes the following:

  • flights and high-altitude activities that are not subject to Federal Law No. (20) of 1991 promulgating the Civil Aviation Law, if they are carried out in the territory of the UAE or include aircraft or vehicles which are registered in the UAE;
  • management of data derived from space activities (such as remote sensing data), including receiving, storing, processing, distributing, archiving or disposing of any such data;
  • collecting or trading meteorites that fall within the UAE's territory;
  • provision of specialised training programs related to space by non-governmental agencies; and
  • any other activities determined by a Cabinet decision based on the proposal of the board of directors of the UAESA.

Under Article 16 of the UAE Space Law, an operator is required to submit the following to the UAESA before allowing any person to participate in a spaceflight (the Spaceflight Participant):

  • proof that the Spaceflight Participant is aware and well informed of the risks associated with the spaceflight;
  • written consent of the Spaceflight Participant to take the relevant spaceflight;
  • proof that the Spaceflight Participant has completed the necessary training, physical and health fitness to take the relevant spaceflight;
  • proof that the Operator has performed all necessary risk and safety assessments, and that there is an appropriate emergency plan; and
  • any other requirements or conditions which may be imposed by the board of directors of the UAESA.

Importantly, an operator carrying out "space activities" and/or "other space sector related activities" (the Operator) is liable for any damage caused by a space object that it owns (including joint ownership) or operates (including joint operation) if:

  • any damage is caused on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft (irrespective of whether the aircraft is flying within or outside of the UAE's airspace); or
  • any damage is caused to another space object, or persons or property aboard that space object, in a place other than the surface of the Earth and when fault is proven.

The liability of an Operator that holds a permit from the UAESA is limited (pursuant to Articles 21(1), 21(2), 22(1) and 22(2) of the UAE Space Law) and an assessment of an applicable liability limit will be made by the Council of Ministers or its delegate upon considering the following factors set out in Article 24:

  • the size of the launch vehicle and any space object launched therefrom;
  • "the fact sheet of the launching Operator or the process of re-entry";
  • the curved path pattern of the launched or re-entered space object; and
  • any other factors that determine the risk of accidents or incidents.

If an Operator does not have a permit or an exemption from the UAESA for carrying out the relevant space or space-related activities, no liability limit applies (see Articles 21(3) and 22(3) of the UAE Space Law).

The UAE Space Law also sets out in article 20 that the UAE shall not be liable for activities carried out by an Operator even if it holds a permit from the UAESA and has carried out its activities in compliance with the UAE Space Law.

Any breach of a condition of a permit or relevant provisions of the UAE Space Law can result in an imposition of a fine ranging from ten thousand dirhams and ten million dirhams and/or up to two years' imprisonment (see Chapter 8 of the UAE Space Law).

Insurance requirements

Any person or company that is engaged in "space activities" and "other space sector related activities" is required to take out third party liability (TPL) insurance from one of the insurance companies approved by the UAESA if the activity they carry out is subject to TPL (see Article 25 of the UAE Space Law). The required amount of TPL insurance cover is not specified in the legislation.

Space objects register

As a state party to the Registration Convention and pursuant to article 31 of the UAE Space Law, the UAESA maintains its national register of space objects which is published on its website.

The UAE Space Law is unique as it requires a special register for meteorites (Meteorite Register) to be maintained (see article 30), and sets out regulations for any meteorite that falls in the territory of the UAE. Any person who possesses a meteorite is required to record it in the Meteorite Register and it is prohibited to sell, buy, trade, store, transport, export, import or conduct any experiments on a meteorite unless approved by the UAESA and authorized by any other relevant governmental entities (see Article 30(6) of the UAE Space Law). In addition, any meteorite that falls in the territory of the UAE is the property of the Emirate in which it falls (Article 30(2)) and if a meteorite falls on or makes a noticeable impact in two or more Emirates, then the meteorite becomes the property of the UAE (Article 30(3)).

Property rights in outer space

Pursuant to Articles 3 and 14(1), the UAE Space Law requires a permit to carry out or participate in activities involving exploitation and use of space resources for scientific, commercial or other purposes if it is carried out within the UAE's establishments outside its territory, from space objects registered by the UAE, by a UAE national or by a company which is headquartered in the UAE.

Space debris

All operators that are authorized to own or operate a space object or carry out or participate in "space activities" are required to take necessary measures and plans to mitigate space debris and reduce the effects thereof under Article 19(1) of the UAE Space Law.

Under Article 19(2), such operators are also required to notify the UAESA if any of the space objects which participate in authorized activities:

  • generate any space debris; or has any exposure to a high potential risk of loss of control or collision with space debris or other space objects.

The Artemis Accords

The UAE is a party to the Artemis Accords.

Other relevant regulatory issues of note

Any "space activities" and "other space sector related activities" must comply with other national legislation in the UAE and international agreements and treaties to which the UAE is a party, including, but not limited to, those governing import and export controls (Article 33 of the UAE Space Law) and intellectual property rights (Article 32 of the UAE Space Law).

Major near-term challenges and opportunities

While the UAE has significantly invested in developing its space industry, it still relies heavily on foreign technology and expertise. However, the UAE has made a successful start in growing and supporting its national space industry through various collaborations with the international community and joint missions with foreign companies.

Partnerships to develop and operate satellites, such as the development of a five-satellite constellation between ICEYE, a Finnish Earth observation satellite manufacturer, Bayanat, a UAE geospatial analysis firm and Yahsat, a UAE company which provides multipurpose satellite solutions, is a great example of how the UAE space sector can utilize and learn from foreign companies which have heritage, experience and expertise in carrying out space activities.

Ensuring that the UAE space sector can provide and has a full value chain will also be important. A key to this will be the development of launch sites and supporting launch operators so that the UAE can have its own launch capability. It will be important to ensure that the UAE grows a network of ground stations and data centers to support satellite operators.

Given that the UAE Space Program is still relatively new, ensuring long-term funding will also be critical to its success. The UAE Government therefore needs to continue to actively allocate sufficient resources to the Space Program, even during times of economic uncertainty.

The current UAE Space Law will also need to be regularly reviewed and updated to keep up with technological advancements and innovation so that it can support the UAE's growing space industry. An increasing number of companies in the global space sector are now forum-shopping when selecting jurisdictions to obtain licenses to carry out their space activities. Therefore, in order to attract foreign companies to the UAE to grow its national space industry, the UAESA will need to ensure that the UAE Space Law is supplemented with guidelines and regulations which are clear, transparent and supportive so the UAE can become one of the preferred jurisdictions for space launch or operations licensing.

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