Less than a 12 months after nailing its first interplanetary mission with a flawless Mars orbit insertion, the United Arab Emirates has chosen its subsequent vacation spot: the asteroid belt.
In October, the UAE introduced that it was aiming to launch a brand new spacecraft in 2028. Like the Hope Mars orbiter, the as-yet-unnamed asteroid mission is designed to satisfy particular science objectives, however it is usually being rigorously engineered to form the nation’s future because the UAE seems to be to diversify its historically oil-focused financial system. That provides the UAE’s missions a distinct taste than what NASA followers are used to seeing.
“We do this in a completely different mechanism,” Sarah Al Amiri, the chair of the UAE Space Agency, instructed Space.com. “We don’t have a typical process of proposals and then narrowing it down and so on. It’s an interesting way of working, but I enjoy it thoroughly because you have everyone sitting at the same table — scientists, engineers, mission designers — discussing all these different potential programs.”
The new mission will draw closely on the group’s expertise with the Hope mission, which the UAE designed to reach in orbit by the nation’s fiftieth anniversary, which occurred this month. Hope, often known as the Emirates Mars Mission, was designed to push the nation’s technical abilities and ambitions whereas additionally discovering a solution to give the world’s scientists a brand new batch of information to contemplate.
But even whereas Hope was nonetheless on Earth, earlier than its launch in July 2020, UAE space leaders had begun to contemplate within the background what they may do subsequent, Al Amiri mentioned, contemplating a number of potential missions. (Al Amiri declined to offer any particulars about different missions the group thought of in case the UAE revives them sooner or later.)
Dreaming up a brand new mission, the UAE needed to start out with what it had already constructed with Hope, however this time, incorporating the nation’s non-public corporations as nicely. “We used the Emirates Mars Mission to build capabilities and capacity in the country, and then we’re using this mission to build capabilities and capacity in industry directly,” Al Amiri mentioned.
But carrying over from Hope is a key partnership with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) on the University of Colorado Boulder, which signed onto the Mars mission in 2014. “Seven years ago, we had no idea what it would be like to work with the Emiratis,” Pete Withnell, program supervisor for Hope at LASP, instructed Space.com. “It was challenging from a technical perspective, but very rewarding on a personal one, and we have lifelong friendships coming out of this.”
Also acquainted would be the spacecraft itself: Although the brand new asteroid probe will go to a distinct vacation spot to do a distinct kind of science than Hope, it’s going to construct instantly on its predecessor’s template for spacecraft design and building.
That mentioned, the brand new mission will want higher warmth safety to outlive a swing previous Venus on its manner out to the asteroid belt, and it’ll want stronger energy manufacturing to run on the lowered daylight accessible farther from the sun.
“The soft spot was this mission, where it used enough of the Emirates Mars Mission to reduce risk, because it’s a much harder mission to go to the asteroid belt,” Al Amiri mentioned. “It’s enough change and enough challenge to be able to trigger it forward.”
In embarking on one other mission, the UAE additionally needed to imitate the science strategy it took for Hope: to deal with a vacation spot of excessive curiosity however to chase an information set that will inform scientists one thing new concerning the solar system. For Hope, that meant finding out the Martian climate and atmosphere utilizing a novel orbit that enables the spacecraft to see a lot of the planet without delay. For the brand new mission, it means growing a posh itinerary of asteroid visits culminating with a touchdown try.
But which asteroids exactly, it is too early to say. So far, the group is not targeted on particular space rocks; as an alternative, it’s growing a mission sketch of what is likely to be possible given the spacecraft and a few fundamental science objectives.
“Because we’re basing this off of a spacecraft design that we know with minor tweaks, that was part of our decision-making process actually — how much can this spacecraft handle?” Al Amiri mentioned.
“We knew sort of the size of the asteroids that we needed to target and the types of maneuvering that the spacecraft needs to go through,” she added. “Based on that we did an initial sort of orbit design of the spacecraft to identify where its route’s going to be, around when do we launch.”
Only now’s the group starting to guage exactly which asteroids the spacecraft can and will go to.
“I think that’s the excitement of all this — it’s sort of like choosing destination unknown,” Heather Reed, who has additionally been part of each missions from the LASP facet, instructed Space.com. “With any luck, we have a varied set of things that we’re looking at, so hopefully all of them are different.”
The new mission joins a considerable listing of spacecraft invested in understanding the secrets and techniques of asteroids. NASA is ready for samples from a near-Earth asteroid referred to as Bennu to be delivered in 2023. The company additionally simply launched the first-ever mission to the Trojan asteroids that orbit the sun on the similar distance as Jupiter and is making ready for subsequent 12 months’s launch of a mission designed to unpack the secrets and techniques of an asteroid that seems to be largely steel.
Meanwhile, final 12 months, Japan celebrated a delivery of samples drawn from an asteroid referred to as Ryugu, which it simply shared with NASA. Japan and China are every planning to launch an asteroid mission later within the decade; Europe is constructing a spacecraft that can go to an asteroid after NASA slams its personal spacecraft into the space rock subsequent fall.
But regardless of the curiosity within the asteroid belt and even with no agency sense of the devices the spacecraft will carry, there’s little probability that the UAE can go there and study nothing new, because it’s “a largely unexplored region of space,” Withnell mentioned.
“The asteroid belt provides a good snapshot in the past, our understanding of the evolution of our solar system, and a snapshot into the future into the role they will play in space exploration,” Al Amiri mentioned.
“There is so much new to discover,” Reed mentioned. “All we have to do is get there, right?”
That, in fact, is the problem the group will sort out over the following 5 years because the venture works towards a 2026 launch date.
“The Emiratis like to do things big and they don’t like particularly to do them in a safe way. They like to take risks,” Withnell mentioned. “Those are two things that speak very well to engineers and scientists.”