Science and Exploration

Touring Through the Asteroid Belt: United Arab Emirates Unveils Bold Mission

By Leonard David
May 29, 2023
Filed under , , ,
Touring Through the Asteroid Belt: United Arab Emirates Unveils Bold Mission
Rendering of the MBR Explorer, the spacecraft to be used in the United Arab Emirates space agency’s upcoming scientific mission to the asteroid belt.
Image credit: UAE Space Agency.

The first multiple-asteroid tour and landing mission to the main belt of space rocks beyond Mars is being blueprinted by the United Arab Emirates, with a tentative launch date of March 2028, the UAE space agency announced today (May 29).

This ambitious plan is called the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, EMA for short. It will involve sending a spacecraft on a seven-year sojourn to the main asteroid belt, where it will dutifully perform a series of close flybys to make unique observations of seven — count ’em, seven — main belt asteroids.

The spacecraft, named the MBR Explorer, underscores the creation and growth of the expanding UAE space program by honoring its namesake, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Future departure

The UAE has yet to announce the rocket booster it plans to use for its planned departure in early March 2028.

EMA is a bold endeavor, drawing upon an earlier United Arab Emirates Space Agency enterprise: the Emirates Mars Mission and its Hope probe, which launched in July 2018 and is now circling the Red Planet after its arrival in February 2021.

The development of EMA is supported by Space Academy, a UAE Space Agency-led apprenticeship program for the UAE’s space sector that quickens the pace of engineering, technical, and innovation expertise across a number of national institutions.

A big ask

Mohsen Al Awadhi is the EMA Program Director, formerly the lead mission systems engineer on the Emirates Mars mission. In a UAE Space Agency press release shared with SpaceRef, he flagged the degree of difficulty in staging the EMA undertaking.

“We said at the time that the Emirates Mars Mission was five times harder than building Earth observation satellites,” Al Awadhi said in the release. “Well, EMA is more than five times harder again.”

“We’re travelling over ten times further, managing two-way radio delays of over an hour and making high-speed flybys as close as 150 kilometers [93 miles] to asteroids at speeds of up to 33,000 kilometers per hour [20,505 miles per hour] over vast distances,” Al Awadhi continued, “and will be making high frequency, high-resolution observations requiring complex, high-capacity data management and transmission. At the end, we’re approaching an asteroid to within 150 meters [roughly 490 feet] and deploying a lander.”

“Basically, it’s a big ask.”

Action-packed agenda

EMA’s first asteroid encounter is to take place in February 2030, with following flybys taking place through 2034.

The action-packed agenda consists of flybys of asteroids (10254) Westerwald; (623) Chimaera; (13294) Rockox; (88055) 2000 VA28; (23871) 1998 RC76; (59980) 1999 SG6, with a final rendezvous target, asteroid (269) Justitia.

Five of the targeted space rocks are members of known asteroid “families,” or groupings of asteroids created by impact events.

Representing different classes of asteroids with varied compositional types, five of the seven targets are less than six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, while two (Justitia and Chimaera) are larger, in the range of 30 miles (50 kilometers) in diameter.

Last on the EMA rendezvous list, Justitia is a heavenly body thought to have been spawned in the region where the giant planets formed and then “migrated” to the main belt. EMA is to deploy a lander at Justitia that will beam science data up from the asteroid’s surface.

“I am in favor of any mission to the asteroid belt because unexpected, surprising information usually results from space missions,” noted asteroid specialist, Clark Chapman, a retired senior scientist from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told SpaceRef.

There is only rather limited data that can be gained from a flyby, Chapman advised, “but looking briefly at half-a-dozen asteroids may make up for in numbers what is lacking in detailed information about each one.”

However, retired astronaut and long-time asteroid aficionado Tom Jones, a veteran of four Space Shuttle flights, argues that there is a great deal of merit in a flyby.

“The flyby surveys by the Emirates mission can characterize a series of varied asteroids, with expected different compositions based on Earth-based observations,” Jones told SpaceRef.

“The close-up looks from the flybys can nail down the mineralogy of their surfaces, which tells us about the formation conditions of these ancient asteroids, and the processes that have shaped them since formation nearly 4.6 billion years ago,” Jones added.

Science instruments

EMA is to be outfitted with four science instruments: a high-resolution camera, a thermal infrared camera, a mid-wavelength spectrometer, and an infrared spectrometer.

Together, these instruments can help better understand the origins and evolution of water-rich asteroids, to assess the resource potential of asteroids, and prepare the way for future asteroid resource utilization, according to the UAE statement.

In particular, the Arizona State University-supplied infrared spectrometer will help characterize asteroid composition using thermal infrared spectra, Arizona State University geologist and space physicist Phil Christensen told SpaceRef.

Studying and characterizing a broad range of asteroids is a key to understanding the early solar system and its evolution, Christensen told SpaceRef.

“There are many types of asteroids that formed in different parts of the solar system and at different times,” Christensen said. “Each type is worthy of study, and the more missions we have to study them, the better our understanding of how our solar system formed and evolved will become.”

Other EMA instrument development partners include the Italian Space Agency, Northern Arizona University, and Malin Space Science Systems of San Diego, California.

Chapman, the former Southwest Research Institute scientist, drew attention to the fact that the asteroid selected for a lander, the (269) Justitia space rock, is a large, unusually red-colored body — a peculiarity that the spacecraft’s instruments could help unravel.

Why red?

Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at MIT, told SpaceRef that he’s also particularly eager to get a look at EMA’s peculiar-colored final rendezvous target.

“Justitia is an object we have observed from Earth for many years but we don’t have many ideas for what is making this object so red,” Binzel told SpaceRef. “Usually we find red objects like Justitia quite far from the Sun. But there it is … just sitting tight in the asteroid belt, relatively close to the Sun.”

The EMA undertaking also signals another significant factor, Binzel added. “Advances in technology are putting space exploration within the reach of many countries. It’s proof positive toward space utilization being accessible to all.”

Future space economy

Tom Jones, the retired Space Shuttle crewmember, said that this new UAE asteroid mission can address a different set of asteroids, typically larger than those in the near-Earth population.

“In fact, the main belt asteroids are the ‘feeder’ population that contributes to those near-Earth objects that could pose a threat to Earth,” said Jones. He added that EMA might gauge those types of asteroids that contain valuable resources, for instance, how much water, metal, and organic material is available for use in a future space economy.

“It’s a challenging mission, seven years in deep space, difficult navigation and maneuvering, and communications and data relay far from Earth,” Jones concluded. “The mission will test the technology skills of the UAE team. I wish them a successful journey.”

Challenging adventure

The University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) is extending its partnership with the UAE Space Agency by working together to develop and implement the upcoming Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt. 

“This [EMA] mission promises an exciting and rich science return and it aligns well with LASP’s 75-year history of successful space science programs,” LASP Director Daniel Baker told SpaceRef. “It affords another opportunity for engaging and training of the next generation of industry-leading engineers and scientists.”

Baker told SpaceRef that the experience LASP shared during the Emirates Mars Mission — from concept development to an operating spacecraft that continues to make new scientific discoveries — was unique and highly rewarding.

“We look forward to another exciting and challenging adventure together as we explore the mysteries of the asteroid belt,” Baker said.

Correction (5/30/2023): This article originally stated that the infrared spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona rather than Arizona State University. SpaceRef regrets the error.

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.