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Saudi CubeSats could send green monitoring into orbit

A NASA engineer tests a CubeSat's solar array. Small, modular CubeSats can help a range of Saudi monitoring programmes. Nasa/JPL-Caltech
A Nasa engineer tests a CubeSat's solar array. Small, modular CubeSats can help a range of Saudi monitoring programmes.
  • Saudi CubeSat launches planned
  • Security and environmental monitoring
  • 7,000 satellites in orbit

Saudi Arabia plans to launch two nanosatellites – also known as CubeSats – per year to help with environmental issues such as finding water and locating oil spills.

These will also play a security role in monitoring the large territory, a space cybersecurity expert said at a Saudi defence forum. 

CubeSats – low-altitude, cheap-to-produce microsatellites – have revolutionised space industries in recent years, leading to a rise in satellite numbers since 2020.  

“The Saudi Space Agency has ambitions to launch at least two CubeSats every year so you can see things growing fast in Saudi Arabia,” Faris Almalki, professor of cybersecurity at Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, said on the sidelines of last week’s World Defense Show in Riyadh.

“We have the green initiative to plant more than 10 billion trees across the Middle East so we have to have a reliable platform to monitor things. Counting trees we can do with CubeSats,” Almalki said. 

He also mentioned ongoing projects to detect oil spills and monitor crowds during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. 

Almalki added that it was “running trials in universities and collaborating with international partners,” citing a project with the University of Oxford to detect reserves of water in the kingdom. 

The Saudi Press Agency reported that King Abdullah University of Science and Technology launched a CubeSat last year, and there is at least one local CubeSat manufacturer inside the kingdom. 

Jonathan Williams, technical director at US company LeoLabs, which tracks space material, said there were more than 7,000 satellites in orbit in 2022, compared with 800 in 2002. 

LeoLabs is also tracking 9,000 known pieces of space junk in Earth’s orbit, but it is likely there are far more pieces of debris that have not yet been identified, Williams said. 

Williams said he was worried about inter-state conflict in space, which could include sabotage of satellites, as well as hacking of satellite systems. He said there was a need for an international space aviation body to establish standards and rules. 

“It all starts with domain awareness,” he told a panel. “You can’t prevent bad things from happening without having the awareness of what people are doing so everyone is accountable to certain rules.” 

Almalki said Saudi Arabia was looking at blockchain technology to secure CubeSat connections to ground stations. 

“In security and military, we have 5,000 km of land and sea borders, so we need to rely on technologies like CubeSat,” he said.

”We have more than 3,000 islands, so in terms of monitoring these natural resources we have to rely on technologies from space.”

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