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Middle Eastern Lunar Missions: the Role of the Moon in the Middle East’s Spacefaring Future

An artist's depiction of the European Space Agency's Moon Village concept. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.
An artist’s depiction of the European Space Agency’s Moon Village concept. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

The Moon is rapidly becoming the destination of choice for space agencies and companies since it poses less technical and financial risk than going directly to Mars. ThorGroup GmbH’s intern in Washington, DC – Nickolas J. Boensch – explores the emerging ‘Moon Rush’ and the possible roles and opportunities for the Israeli and UAE space programmes.

Global space powers are planning and currently launching space operations and missions to the moon. Established space powers like China and Russia are focusing on the exploration and utilization of the moon while the United States and Europe are preparing missions to Mars. Although the U.S. Journey to Mars is the primary objective in its current space policy, the U.S. may consider a pivot toward lunar-based missions as a testing locale for critical experiments and technology in preparation for more complex ventures to Mars. The United Arab Emirates and Israel are two countries that have a great deal to contribute to and benefit from lunar missions. The rising space powers in the Middle East have an opportunity to greatly expand their space sectors, global influence, technology development and prestige in the spacefaring community while also inspiring their youth to pursue careers in space and science fields.

From Mars to the Moon?

Although the United States is focused on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and its Journey to Mars, many specialists have questioned this approach. Several experts in the field favor missions to cislunar space and the moon. The National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration Report questions the direct to Mars mission and notes that “the most distant and difficult is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars; it would require overcoming unprecedented technical risk, fiscal risk, and programmatic challenges.” Emerging space powers that wish to partner with the United States have little way of supporting meaningful cooperation given the potential vulnerabilities. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, explains that these emerging actors “saw the Moon as a challenging but feasible destination for robotic exploration and practical focus for human space exploration.” Pace notes that “a U.S. commitment now to lead a multinational program to explore the moon would be a symbolic and practical first step as well as a means of creating a broader international framework for space cooperation.” Many experts believe that the lack of U.S. lunar missions will result in the likelihood of prospective partnering countries cooperating with other established space powers.

Politicians also express their discontent with the current direct to Mars plan. The U.S. Congress’ House Appropriations Committee has attempted to shelve the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Asteroid Redirect Mission by proposing to block funding for the programme. The draft report from the Committee notes that “the Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars.” The report continues, “no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid… Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars.”

Recently, ARM cleared its Key Decision Point-B review despite a U.S.$150 million cost increase. With rising costs, ARM will have an even greater target on its back as the moon-first camp continues to grow with more disillusioned experts and politicians. The 2016 U.S. presidential election could facilitate changes in current U.S. space policy. If the next U.S. administration decides to pivot to the moon, growing space powers in the Middle East may partake in greater cooperation because lunar missions would encompass less “technical risk, fiscal risk, and programmatic challenges” than missions to Mars.

An International Moon Rush?

Enthusiasm for lunar missions is also occurring in Europe. The Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), Johann-Dietrich Wörner, is known for his relentless advocacy for an international lunar colony that he calls Moon Village. A key aspect of this programme is the essential emphasis on international cooperation. Wörner notes that, “a village is something where different people are gathering with different capabilities, different opportunities, and then they build a community.” This community would be more open and expand well beyond the several states that utilize the International Space Station. The refugee crisis and the aftermath of the British withdrawal from the European Union, however, could diminish ESA’s influence to lead an effort to the moon or to establish a Moon Village. This leaves the door open for emerging space actors in the Middle East to have a more important role in cooperation on future lunar missions.

Russia shares the global fervor toward lunar exploration. Moscow is planning for a revitalization of the Cold War–era robotic Luna program, which will serve as a precursor for human missions to the moon. Using the Angara–A5P rocket and the crewed spacecraft Federation, both currently under development, Russia is dedicating its operations to lunar exploration. These missions, such as Luna 25, Luna-Glob, and Luna-Resurs will pave the way toward Russia’s plans for human exploration of the moon. Thomasz Nowakowski notes that within the next fifteen years, Russian Cosmonauts will be making journeys to the moon on a regular basis, and Anatoly Zak of Popular Mechanics explains that “the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the resulting economic sanctions from the West—combined with falling oil prices—have squeezed the Russian economy.” Russia may be able to reduce the costs of its ambitious space programme by engaging in greater cooperation with emerging Middle Eastern space actors.

China has also been actively involved in the exploration of the moon in recent years. Their Chang’e lunar exploration programme has seen much success. The Chang’e 5 mission set to launch in 2017 will be a sample return mission seeking to deliver 2kg of lunar soil and rocks to earth. Although it has not been stated officially, many see the Chang’e missions and the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme as precursors for future crewed missions to the moon. Andrew Jones, a writer on China’s space programme, notes that “Liang Xiaohong, former vice president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology under the Chinese Aerospace Science Technology Corporation (CASC)… discussed the objective, while CASC chairman Lei Fanpei last year referenced putting taikonauts on the Moon.”

The series of robotic missions to the moon conducted by China aids in refining the technology and proficiencies needed for grander lunar operations. Middle Eastern states hoping to continue developing their space capabilities can take full advantage of China’s Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Activities. This agreement allows for states to conduct space experiments on and send astronauts to China’s future Tiangong 3 space station. This MOU could continue into China’s lunar missions, where Middle Eastern states could provide key scientific instruments and capitalize on astronaut training.

Established space powers are not the only ones who have future plans for missions to the moon. Commercial companies also see value in extending their operations to this celestial body. Perhaps the most famous is the Google Lunar X Prize in which space entrepreneurs are incentivized to “to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond.” Teams competing for this prize are working diligently to make a soft landing on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send pictures and video back to Earth. Other ventures like U.S. company Golden Spike hope to allow astronauts from different countries to conduct experiments on the moon. Shackleton Energy seeks to extract water ice from the moon’s poles and create fuel, and Bigelow Aerospace aims to land habitable modules on the moon. In the U.K. Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd have announced that they will provide a system to transport payloads to the moon while providing them with communication links back to earth. Clarifying Surrey’s future role in lunar operations, SSTL Executive Chairman Sir Martin Sweeting explains, “you remember what they say about the California Gold Rush, that the only people who made money were those selling shovels? We are content to play that kind of role in lunar exploration.” As cost of entry continues to decrease and the economic worth of the moon and lunar operations is solidified, greater numbers of commercial entities will utilize the moon and cislunar space.

An Opportunity for Middle East Space Powers

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has recently experienced success in the development of, and investment in, their space capabilities. The UAE could solidify its position as a regional centre of civil and commercial space endeavors if it includes a lunar operational focus. The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the UAE Space Agency are developing high level projects like the Hope Mars Orbiter. As the UAE searches for new missions to undertake once Hope has launched, its attention could turn toward the moon. These moon missions could result in cooperation efforts if the UAE aligns its interests with other space powers. The technology and scientific payloads developed for the Hope mission could also be applied to the moon. The UAE may play a leading role in developing scientific instruments for future landers and orbiters. Much like Sweden and Germany’s scientific instrument contributions on China’s Chang’e 4 rover mission, the UAE could cooperate with any space power journeying to the lunar surface, providing key instruments for this endeavor. The close proximity of the moon makes it an ideal target for the UAE’s future orbiters and rovers compared to the prolonged 26-month launch windows to Mars.

By encouraging the development of specialized technology, like 3D printing, the UAE can further the exploration of the moon by utilizing the lunar surface and regolith to create objects on the surface rather than launching them.   This type of activity is critical to the creation of Johann-Dietrich Wörner’s Moon Village or other future lunar habitats. By investing in space mining technology, the UAE could harvest and mine water ice in the lunar Polar Regions. Luxemburg has already made investments in this field by purchasing 49% of the equity in Planetary Resources, a U.S. space mining company. The ice found in the lunar poles could be split into liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which serve as rocket propellants. This propellant could then be sold to spacecraft requiring more fuel in order to further extend deep space missions. The UAE could create a secure regulatory environment for space mining activities and also make investments in companies undertaking these endeavors, or even seek to develop their own individual capabilities. Known for exporting natural resources like oil, it would not be inconceivable to find the UAE taking a leadership role in space mining resources such as lunar ice. These actions would certainly lead the UAE to becoming a regional center for space activities.

Meanwhile in Israel, the Space IL moon mission could inspire the country’s youth to pursue careers in space related fields and generate immense prestige for the nation. Israel is exceptionally proud of its space achievements, being one of the few countries in the world that possess indigenous launch capability with the Shavit rocket. Israeli space analyst Deganit Paikowsky notes that Israel’s strategic situation “does not permit it to launch a satellite eastward… Thus, Israel can only launch satellites in a westward direction—opposite to the rotation of the Earth.” This distinction has led Israel to specialise in lightweight satellites. Another source of pride in Israel is their first astronaut Ilan Ramon who flew aboard the doomed Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, where he performed many experiments before the loss of the shuttle.

The Israeli company Space IL is aiming to win the Google X Lunar Prize. If it is successful, the result will provide massive prestige for Israel’s space industry. The educational impact will be pronounced, inspiring much of Israel’s youth, like the Shavit rocket and Ilan Ramon have in the past. The vision for Space IL is “to create a new ‘Apollo Effect’ to inspire the next generation in Israel and around the world to think differently about science, engineering, technology and math.” The group notes that “despite its technological excellence, Israel faces a severe need for more scientists and engineers.” Space IL and its mission to the moon can have a great social impact by creating a lasting ‘Apollo Effect’ promoting scientific education.

Space IL’s historic moon mission would also attract consumers to Israel’s space markets. Peter B. de Selding, in an interview with Isaac Ben-Israel, the chairman of the Israel Space Agency, writes that “with the government now accepting that space investment can be an engine for economic growth in addition to a guarantor of strategic autonomy… Israel is doing what’s necessary to better equip — and support — its industry on global markets.” The global recognition of Space IL’s accomplishments could draw international organizations to Israeli’s space markets, aiding the country’s export sales for the space sector.

Israel’s technological developments enable them to be an appealing partner for space powers interested in cost efficiencies through cooperation. The Space Autonomous Mission of Swarming & geolocating Nano-Satellites (SAMSON) project conducted by Technion University in Israel developed technology where three nanosatellites will fly in formation and geolocate civilian signals on the ground. This capability could aid missions mining of the moon’s ice water or assist scientific payloads to the moon. Effective Space Solutions, a company developing satellite-servicing technology, could be capable of extending the lifetime of any satellites and orbiters around the moon. Similarly, SpacePharma could utilize the lunar surface in its missions to conduct micro-gravity experiments. The expertise that Israel has gained in the production of lightweight satellites can play a key role in monitoring and communicating with the lunar surface. Israel is able to enhance its own, or international, lunar missions based on the multiple developments within its space sector.

Although countries like the UAE and Israel can benefit from and contribute to missions to the moon, many emerging space actors in the Middle East will likely focus on developing civil and military space capabilities rather than funding exploration programs. Many countries in the region will presumably work to perfect the production of indigenous satellite systems. These satellites could aid in economic development of a country and provide enhanced space-based military capabilities. Decreasing barriers to entry and low cost products such as cubesats could facilitate these projects. These countries will also likely seek to make agreements with established space powers, allowing for student exchanges and valuable training for engineers, much like the agreement between NASA and Jordan. Many of these countries will likely seek to improve their indigenous satellite capabilities rather than take part in ambitious and risky moon missions.

Yet even those countries in the Middle East that may currently lack the capabilities required to have payloads or instruments operating on the moon could still play a valuable role in the exploration and exploitation of the lunar environment. SpaceWatch Middle East recently reported on Part Time Scientists, a Berlin-based team competing for the Google X Lunar Prize and the test of their Audi Lunar Quattro rover in the Bir Zekreet desert of Qatar. The sand and dust associated with this terrain is similar to that which is found on the moon. Robert Böhme, the CEO of PT Scientists, when originally planning for testing in the UAE explained that “the country’s hot, dry conditions and sandy, rocky terrain are ideal for putting a lunar rover through some of the rigors that will be encountered on the Moon.” Countries like Qatar could utilize their topography to their advantage. Perhaps Qatar could construct a formal testing facility to allow commercial and government rovers to test their products for future lunar missions, and assist in facilitating cooperation between Qatari engineers with other space powers and companies. A country like Qatar, which currently lacks a formal space agency, could play a crucial role in lunar missions by creating lunar surface testing facilities.


Russia and China are likely to continue developing lunar missions while the U.S. and Europe could pivot toward moon-first operations. Commercial companies will increasingly set their sights on the moon as barriers to entry fall and profits become certain. Emerging space powers in the Middle East, such as the UAE and Israel, can take full advantage of current and planned missions to the moon by providing key technology and scientific instruments on these missions. The lower cost and risk of lunar missions, as opposed to missions to Mars, could also allow these countries to develop their own orbiters and rovers. These states could advance their space sectors by investing in 3D printing and space mining technology, while also applying technology currently under development, like the UAE Hope mission and Israel’s SAMSON, to lunar operations. Even those Middle Eastern countries without established space programmes could advance the exploration and utilization of the moon by creating rover-testing facilities. Missions to the moon could be key to unveiling the potential of these emerging spacefaring countries.

Nickolas J. Boetsch is a student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and an intern with ThorGroup GmbH. The views expressed here are his own.

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