Out of This World Internship for UAE Students

Ahlam Al Qasim (wearing yellow) and Fatema Al Khouri (wearing purple) became the first NYUAD undergraduate students to intern at the Italian Space Agency’s Data Science Center near Rome.

It marks a new frontier of collaboration between NYU Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and the Italian Space Agency.

This summer, NYUAD students Ahlam Al Qasim, Class of 2017, and Fatema Al Khouri, Class of 2018, became the first NYUAD undergraduate students to intern at the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) Data Science Center (ASDC) located on the outskirts of Rome. ASDC houses the AGILE Satellite’s data center for the study of the emission of gamma rays and is home to some of the world's top astrophysicists.

Al Qasim, entering her junior year, and Al Khouri, entering her sophomore year in September, are both from the UAE and spent three weeks learning about how raw data from the AGILE satellite is collected, analyzed, and then instantly shared on ASDC’s online database.

The internship opportunity was made possible by the head of the NYUAD physics department, Francesco Arneodo, who has a long and impressive career in astrophysics and many professional contacts in Italy, including ASI President Professor Roberto Battiston who visited Abu Dhabi earlier this year when the UAE unveiled plans to launch its own national space agency.

"I worked closely with Professor Battiston to establish this new internship opportunity and was aware that two Emirati students in my lab classes were eager to be involved. They were the best candidates, very motivated."

The internship marks the beginning of a new and significant relationship between the Italian Space Agency, NYU Abu Dhabi, and the UAE. ASI's president, Arneodo said, has written a letter to the director of the UAE space agency to mark the occasion as a significant step toward future collaborations.

Internship Q&A


You learned a lot in less than a month. What are your top highlights?

1. AGILE Satellite

Unlike many satellites that are based on collaborations between many nations, the AGILE Satellite is a purely Italian satellite that works in the Gamma-Ray range of the electromagnetic spectrum. It was the first satellite to detect high-energy terrestrial gamma ray flashes (above 40 MeV) that originate from the Earth’s atmosphere, most probably caused by natural storms, like a thunderstorm. We learned how raw satellite data is processed and analyzed using online web tools, which create instant catalogues on ASI's homepage. It's very stimulating to see the agency share its data so openly on their website. They even have online tools to build analytical graphs using data from multiple satellites covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum for any given event.

2. Multi-wavelength studies

We gained a lot of knowledge about multi-wavelength cross-matching methods, multi-wavelength analysis of different types of events, and the physics theories and concepts that many satellites are built upon, including AGILE, Planck, Gaia, and Herschel. We also learned about improved mechanisms that new satellites have adapted to increase their sensitivity compared to older ones working in the same region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

We were also tasked with extending a python script with the help of ASDC’s computer scientist Federica Moscato for the purpose of extracting data from the Orbital Data Explorer (ODE), developed at NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS) using their REST Interface, and translating the data for the ASDC planetary visualization tool, Matisse Online, for several planets with different instruments, including Mercury and the Moon.

3. Workshops with the pros

We took part in workshop-style seminars with ASDC scientists and visiting scientists from around the world to discuss future satellite missions and how they will be established, including the Plato mission and the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), both very exciting developments in the astrophysics community.

Do you see yourself launching your own career in the space industry?

Ahlam: This experience really solidified my interest in working with the UAE Space Agency, especially with the Mars Mission coming up in the near future. The UAE has taken a leap in terms of developing an industry for scientists and researchers and I want to be a part of that development and encourage youths to pursue scientific fields. This internship could possibly be the door that opens future relations and collaborations between the UAE Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, which is very important if we want the research industry in the UAE to grow and develop proficiently.

Fatema: There are many things yet to understand and explore in space, making it a promising field for exploration. I am looking forward that the UAE makes major contributions to the human knowledge of space, and that it places its fingerprint in the scientific arena in general. Hopefully succeeding space explorations, other research fields will emerge to complement them, including nuclear physics (energy processes) and geophysics (physical properties and planet phenomena). I aim to place the UAE at the frontier of the research industry by announcing significant findings explored by Emirati scientists.