Saturday, June 22

UAE Launches Bold Asteroid Belt Mission 2023

The UAE space agency stated today (May 29) that it is planning the first multiple-asteroid tour and landing mission to the main belt of space rocks beyond Mars for March 2028.

Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA) is this ambitious concept. It will deploy a spacecraft to the main asteroid belt for seven years to execute close flybys and make unique investigations of seven main belt asteroids.

The MBR Explorer honors Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who founded the UAE space program.

Future departure

UAE’s rocket booster for early March 2028 departure is unknown.

The Emirates Mars Mission, launched in July 2018 and arriving to Mars in February 2021, inspired EMA.

Space Academy, a UAE Space Agency-led apprenticeship program for the space industry, accelerates engineering, technical, and innovation talent across many national universities and supports EMA growth.

Big request

Former Emirates Mars mission lead mission systems engineer Mohsen Al Awadhi is the EMA Program Director. He noted EMA’s issue in a UAE Space Agency press statement shared with SpaceRef.

Al Awadhi stated in the statement that the Emirates Mars Mission was five times tougher than Earth surveillance satellites. “EMA is even harder.”

Al Awadhi continued, “We’re traveling 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, and will be making high frequency, high-resolution observations requiring complex, high-capacity data management and transmission. At the end, we approach an asteroid to 150 meters [490 feet] and deploy a lander.”

“It’s a big request.”

Busy schedule

In February 2030, EMA will flyby its first asteroid.

Flybys of asteroids (10254) Westerwald, (623) Chimaera, (13294) Rockox, (88055) 2000 VA28, (23871) 1998 RC76, (59980) 1999 SG6, and (269) Justitia conclude the action-packed itinerary.

Five of the targeted space objects belong to asteroid “families,” or impact-formed groups.

Five of the seven targets are less than six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, but two (Justitia and Chimaera) are bigger, at 30 miles (50 kilometers). They represent various classes of asteroids with differing compositions.

Justitia, the last EMA rendezvous object, may have originated in the area where the giant planets formed and subsequently “migrated” to the main belt. A Justitia lander from EMA will transmit science data from the asteroid.

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

Chapman said, “but looking briefly at half-a-dozen asteroids may make up for in numbers what is lacking in detailed information about each one.” Flybys provide limited data.

However, former astronaut and longtime asteroid enthusiast Tom Jones, who flew four Space Shuttle missions, believes a flyby is worthwhile.

Jones told SpaceRef that Emirates mission flyby studies can classify a variety of asteroids with varying compositions based on Earth-based data.

“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 said.

Science tools

EMA will have a high-resolution camera, thermal infrared camera, mid-wavelength spectrometer, and infrared spectrometer.

According to the UAE statement, these sensors can assist study the origins and development of water-rich asteroids, assess their resource potential, and plan for asteroid resource usage.

ASU geologist and space physicist Phil Christensen told SpaceRef that the University of Arizona-supplied infrared spectrometer will assist assess asteroid composition using thermal infrared spectra.

Christensen told SpaceRef that comprehending the early solar system and its history requires studying and classifying many asteroids.

“Many types of asteroids formed in different parts of the solar system and at different times,” Christensen added. “Each type deserves study, and the more missions we have to study them, the better our understanding of how our solar system formed and evolved.”

The Italian Space Agency, Northern Arizona University, and San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems also create EMA instruments.

The former Southwest Research Institute scientist Chapman pointed out that the lander’s asteroid, (269) Justitia, is a huge, strangely red body that the spacecraft’s sensors may assist explain.

Why red?

MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel told SpaceRef he’s interested to see EMA’s odd-colored ultimate rendezvous destination.

“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. “Red objects like Justitia are usually far from the Sun. However, it remains in the asteroid belt, quite near to the Sun.

Binzel stated that the EMA initiative is equally crucial. Technology makes space exploration accessible to many nations. It supports universal space use.”

Space economy

Tom Jones, a veteran Space Shuttle crewmember, claimed this new UAE asteroid expedition can target bigger asteroids.

Jones stated the main belt asteroids are the “feeder” population that contributes to near-Earth objects that potentially threaten Earth. He stated that EMA might assess asteroids with rich resources including water, metal, and biological stuff for a future space economy.

Jones said, “It’s a challenging mission, seven years in deep space, difficult navigation and maneuvering, and communications and data relay far from Earth. “The mission will test the UAE team’s technology skills. I hope they succeed.”

Daring adventure

The UAE Space Agency and Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) are collaborating on the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt.

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

Baker told SpaceRef that LASP’s Emirates Mars Mission experience—from concept conception to an actual spacecraft that continues to make scientific discoveries—was unique and fulfilling.

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

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