Space exploration can play a vital role in mitigating the devastating effects of climate change, according to the head of strategic research at the UAE Space Agency. (File photo)

Road to COP28

Space sector ‘key’ to mitigating the effects of climate change: UAE space chief

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Space exploration can play a vital role in mitigating the devastating effects of climate change, according to the head of strategic research at the UAE Space Agency.

Speaking ahead of the COP28 summit, which will take place in the UAE in November, Abdulla Alshehhi told Al Arabiya English that harnessing the power of space technology - from Earth observation satellites which provide crucial data on climate patterns, greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation to cutting-edge research on other celestial bodies - can revolutionize the way humanity addresses the pressing challenge.

Abdulla Alshehhi, head of strategic research at the UAE Space Agency. (Supplied)

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“With climate change rising to the top of the agenda for governments and global institutions, I believe the space sector can play a critical role in minimizing the impact that climate change has on our planet,” he said. “Today, space-based technology not only helps us understand more about climate change but has proven to be a catalyst for change in the way certain sectors or industries function.”

“For example, in agriculture, space satellites provide critical data when it comes to monitoring soil quality, drought conditions, and crop development. Satellites are also crucial in providing weather forecasts that help farmers plan harvest timings and decide how much irrigation they will need for their crops.”

With the world’s population expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, enhanced satellite data is crucial to help farmers improve agricultural yields and ensure there is a sufficient amount of food to meet the demands of the growing population, said Alshehhi.

Satellites can enable scientists to gather invaluable information on global weather patterns, sea levels, and the health of ecosystems with unprecedented accuracy and scope. The data collected helps governments and environmental agencies make informed decisions to combat climate change and establish effective policies.

Space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency already have dedicated programs that track how Earth is changing because of greenhouse gas emissions.

Alshehhi said space technology will also pave the way for the more widespread use of climate-friendly autonomous electric vehicles, pointing out that the way the global population travels will be markedly different in a few years’ time.

“Autonomous vehicles that are under development will rely heavily on GPS technology, which relies on space satellites and communication systems, to operate safely while autonomous electric vehicles and ride-sharing modes of transport can help lower carbon emissions.”

He added: “Overall, leveraging the latest space technologies is vital as it will not only make our planet more sustainable but will benefit a wide range of sectors such as energy, food and water, aviation, and telecommunications.”

UAE’s 10-year plan

In its ongoing efforts to boost the economy and become a global space leader, the UAE has invested about $10 billion in the space sector as part of its 10-year plan.

In addition to the 10 new spacecraft under development, the UAE owns more than 20 orbital satellites and is home to more than 80 international, emerging space companies, institutions and facilities, as well as five research centers for space sciences.

Its initiatives include the National Space Strategy 2030, aimed at improving the space sector’s contribution to the national economy, and the UAE Astronaut Program, which is developing a national team of astronauts for scientific and manned space exploration missions.

The country also celebrated a major milestone this year when Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi took off for a historic six-month mission on the International Space Station—the Arab world’s longest space mission. He made history as the first Arab astronaut to complete a spacewalk on the International Space Station.

United Arab Emirates' (UAE) astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi. (AFP)

Alshehhi believes the UAE’s space sector will continue to grow rapidly and go from “strength to strength,” saying there is no better time than now for the younger generation and adults to pursue a career in space.

He said: “Many countries, including the UAE, are now investing significantly in space as it will be pivotal in shaping a better future. With a variety of programs and initiatives already in place in the UAE, space has promising potential to drive positive change for years to come. It is time to place more emphasis on the importance of space and attracting talent to the sector.

“Today, space is not just about developing the next generation of astronauts. It is a huge sector that requires skill sets from a range of backgrounds, such as medical, IT, finance, and engineering—all of which are fundamental to the sector’s progress. Therefore, individuals interested in joining the space sector can explore a wide range of careers, including as a data scientist, satellite operator, or systems engineer.

“More importantly, the limitless possibilities of space enable creativity. With space development a key national priority for the UAE, there is a bright future ahead that can inspire youth to take an interest in space and study subjects in the STEM field.”

Alshehhi is representing the space sector in NEP 3.0, a program that aims to foster the development of leaders working in sectors strategically important in the country’s future. He is one of 15 UAE-based specialists taking part in the program.

He was part of the Emirates Mars Mission team in 2020 and, in his current role, he focuses on promoting the space sector in the UAE and internationally, including representing his country at high-level global gatherings.

He added: “The UAE has outlined ambitious plans to boost its economy, and I’m committed to playing my part in this journey by passing on my learnings from NEP to everyone, especially the younger generation, as they will help drive our future progress.

“The youth are already having their voices heard when it comes to sustainability, and it’s crucial that everyone joins the conversation at COP28 and hears what impact the space sector can have on a more sustainable future.”

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