For humanity, space flights were more like stories of Greek mythology until 1961 when man carried out the first Russian space flight, triggering an international competition to ascend and explore space until the present time. During this period, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to take part in the 1985 Discovery space flight.
At that time, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, had witnessed its launch and consequently, the Kingdom proceeded with the journey of space sciences and research, and the development of its scientific performance in line with the development program of national industry and logistics services, as one of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 programs.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ interest in the space sector’s project in the Kingdom resulted in accomplishing many scientific achievements. One of these was Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz joining the Discovery shuttle as the first Arab astronaut.
It is worth mentioning that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has been following the Kingdom’s project on the space sector since 30 Saudi scientists contributed to the study of the US space shuttle Discovery’s flight.
Such interest continued with the launch of Vision 2030, right up until the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ royal order to establish the Saudi Space Commission. Headed by Prince Sultan bin Salman, its role is to be the sole national authority responsible for developing the sector and directing efforts in a way that gives the Kingdom the leadership and international status it deserves.
Since its establishment in 1977, the ‘Saudi Arabian National Centre for Science and Technology (SANCST)’ has played a key role in conducting applied scientific research to serve development and progress. But in 1985, a royal decree issued to change SANCST’s name to become King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). The city contributed to the advancement of this vital sector, including a plan to transfer and localize the Satellite technology in 1988, when a large group of specialists in various fields and engineering departments joined the National Center for Satellite Technology, including mechanics, electricity, electronics, control, photonics, software, and others.
Between 2000 – 2019, the Kingdom managed to launch 16 Saudi satellites into space under the supervision of KACST. The last of these was the Saudi Telecom satellite ‘SGS1’, which was launched on 6 February 2019, bearing the signature of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense – along with the phrase: ‘High Above the Clouds’ written on it.
The Saudi satellite (SGS1) serves the multiple modern satellite communications sector, which includes broadband communications and secure military communications. It also provides communications to semi-remote and stricken areas for use in various fields of sustainable development, such as high-speed broadband communications and secure communications for government agencies. The satellite is operated and managed through advanced ground control stations in the Kingdom.
Saudi satellites are manufactured as structural parts in the mechanical workshop of KACST, which is now part of the Fourth Industry Center, where there is a special team at the Institute of Space and Aviation Research to produce the electronic panels required to optimize the operation of the satellites in space. These are pre-designed by specialized engineers at the center as per the requirements of international standards.
KACST has an infrastructure for collecting and testing satellites. This includes testing equipment for special environmental conditions that simulate the conditions the satellites are expected to be exposed to in space or while they are being sent by rockets into orbit. Factors such as vibration, temperature fluctuations and the intensity of the solar radiation directed into space orbits are taken into account.
The tasks of the Saudi engineers responsible for the satellite industry include the design, construction and testing of satellite systems in accordance with international standards such as ECSS and IPC.
Those Saudi engineers have gained significant experience in this field by conducting a group of research and development projects in various satellite technologies. Their acquired experiences cover areas of satellite project management, design and testing processes, verification and validation processes, simulations, and image processing operations.
The Kingdom boosted its interest in the space sector through cooperation with international scientific bodies, as KACST carried out scientific experiments in space in cooperation with America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Stanford University on board the ‘Saudi Sat 4’. It has also participated in the moon exploration mission ‘Chang’e 4’, in cooperation with the Chinese Space Agency in 2018, on a rare mission to explore the far side of the moon.
A study conducted by Morgan Stanley bank estimated that the ‘space economy’ would exceed a trillion dollars in 2040 by focusing on the basic revenues that will be generated from the revenues of satellite and missile services. The study said that there is a tendency towards developing the economy of the space industry as there are several sources that measure the size of this economy. These include The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which expected investment returns to range between $280-300 billion and the Euroconsult research firm, which expected the investment returns to reach $360 billion.
According to what was said by Prince Sultan bin Salman in the first meeting of the ‘Space Economy Leaders 20’ within the program of international conferences held in parallel to the Kingdom’s presidency of the G20 last year, the volume of the space economy in the world reached about $400 billion in 2019, of which the G20 countries account for 92%. Prince Sultan also indicated that the growth of the space economy is expected to reach $1.1 trillion in 2040 and $2.7 trillion by 2050.
This comes as HRH the Crown Prince affirmed in an interview recently that diversifying the Kingdom’s revenues is an important and vital matter that the Public Investment Fund works on by supporting new sectors, including space, transport, etc., and it will be an essential enabler for many sectors in the near future.
HRH the Crown Prince also noted that the Council of Economic and Development Affairs and the specialized authorities are working to adopt the Kingdom’s space strategy for the next 10 years and assign the Space Commission to implement it, which is a deep strategy that accommodates the ambition, aspiration and passion of the Saudi citizen for the future, and links great importance to the development of human capital in space sciences and its various fields.
In front of the United Nations meeting held in New York last year, the Kingdom affirmed that it considers it vital that the space sector should be used for scientific and peaceful purposes, and that its ratification of the ‘United Nations treaties related to the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes’ and its principles are a testament to this interest.
Within the framework of the Saudi achievements in the field of space, the Kingdom, represented by KACST, established a ‘Center of Excellence for Space and Earth’ in cooperation with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Center of Excellence for Space Research and Joint Aviation with Stanford University, USA. It has also enhanced the level of education in space and aviation sciences, educational programs and the development of national cadres.
Moreover, the Kingdom has signed several agreements in the field of outer space technology and its applications with several countries such as the USA, China, the Russian Federation, Germany, France and Kazakhstan.
In line with the space industry’s successive developments, KACST has established photo and satellite reception stations to cover 2.7 million square kilometers from southern Russia to southern Somalia and from western Pakistan to eastern Libya.
The Kingdom, represented by the Saudi Space Commission, called for the first meeting of the ‘Space Economy Leaders 20’, as part of its presidency of the G20 during 2020 within the program of international conferences, with the aim of coordinating efforts for the peaceful use of space by agencies in the 20 largest economic countries in the world and supporting existing and future efforts of member states to raise the level of scientific and economic investment in the space sector, raise its competitiveness and sustain its activities.
The Saudi Space Commission is making tremendous efforts to advance its march, as the Board of Directors, headed by Prince Sultan bin Salman, approved in April 2020 the study of establishing the ‘Saudi Space Company’ and its bylaws, as well as the space system project that it prepared in cooperation with government institutions related to the space sector.
In the near future, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is expected to approve the National Space Strategy, which includes ambitious and realistic projects worth of the Kingdom’s important position and depends on enablers, including establishing a financing program for emerging and research projects, supporting small and medium enterprises as well as stimulating innovation and confirming the Kingdom’s commitment to invest in this large economic sector.