After Mars, the UAE sets its sights on Venus and asteroids

A new chapter in the country's space programme has just been announced, which will see its most difficult mission yet
Data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter is used in an undated composite image of the planet Venus.  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS.  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

The average surface temperature of Venus, the hottest planet in our solar system, is around 471°C. It might be the second-nearest planet to earth, but almost everything about it is different. On Tuesday, however, Venus and the Earth were brought closer together, in our imaginations if not in space, when the UAE announced plans to send its next space mission to our planetary neighbour.

The mission, which will also include sending the same spacecraft to the asteroid belt, builds on the Emirates' reputation as a leading regional centre of astronomy, with one of the world's fastest-developing space programmes. Its work beyond Earth's atmosphere began in 1997, with the launch of a communications satellite, Thoraya. In 2019, it sent its first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, to the International Space Station. In February, it became one of only five countries to send a spacecraft to Mars.

Today, it is demanding even more of its space community. Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, has said the Venus mission is "in the order of five times more complex than the Emirates Mars Mission”.

While the exact nature of the equipment and scientific objectives of the mission are yet to be fully announced, data gathered on the trip will change the field permanently. On the topic of Venus, big questions remain over the composition of its thick and inhospitable atmosphere, and why, given its proximity and size, it developed so differently to Earth. We are not yet certain about whether the planet once had an ocean.

And more knowledge on the nearby asteroid belt could have major consequences for life on Earth: most meteorites that hit our planet originate from the belt. If the UAE pulls off current plans to land on an asteroid, it would be only the fourth country to do so. Collecting samples for analysis could tell us more about how the earth and other planets were formed.

The mission is also being designed to change the UAE's space sector at home. It has been launched as part of the UAE's "Projects of the 50" programme — 50 projects to define the country as it celebrates the golden anniversary of its formation. The mission is accompanied by five new plans to boost Emirati participation in its space community, including one to get more UAE firms involved in the field, an apprenticeship scheme to encourage young Emiratis into jobs in component assembly and space subsystems engineering and plans to increase the participation of local and international universities and research centres.

Beyond these practical changes, astronomy captures the attention of the world, not just specialists, perhaps more than any other branch of science. The defining video of 20th-century scientific progress was Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, the first in history. Very few countries have the ambition and capacity to push science in such a spectacular, visible manner. If the UAE can be one, it will launch into the next 50 years as a leading centre of science and exploration.

Published: October 7th 2021, 3:00 AM