UAE spacecraft plans to explore seven asteroids in 3.6bn-kilometre mission

Mission planned for 2028 will get there with a little help from Earth, Venus and Mars

Space rocks in the main asteroid belt. Photo: Image via Lynette Cook/ W. M. Keck Observatory/ ROOM
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The names of the seven asteroids the UAE plans to explore have been revealed in a paper that will be presented to a conference in the US next month.

In 2021, the UAE Space Agency announced a mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter with a launch planned for 2028.

The spacecraft would fly by six asteroids and attempt a landing on a seventh. To get there, it would need gravity assistance from Earth, Venus and Mars.

The seven asteroids are 10253 Westerwald, 623 Chimaera, 13294 Rockox, 88055, 23871, 59980 and a landing attempt will be made on 269 Justitia.

The mission will be the most challenging to be undertaken yet by the UAE’s space programme, with a total journey of 3.6 billion kilometres – seven times the distance the Hope probe travelled to reach Mars in February 2021.

University of Colorado Boulder is working with the UAE Space Agency to make this mission possible, as they did with the Emirates Mars Mission.

"The mission is an exploration that will fly though the inner Solar System and then investigate asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter," the paper said.

The primary objectives of the programme are resources, technologies and fundamental science.

"Additional, high-priority objectives are innovation, public engagement and the development of space sector industry infrastructure in the UAE," the paper said.

Details of the mission are to be presented at the Asteroids, Comets, Meteors Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, next month.

Studying a rare asteroid

The 269 Justitia is a rare asteroid beyond the orbit of Neptune that the UAE spacecraft will study.

Discovered in 1887, the space rock has a reddish hue that has puzzled scientists.

"The primary science goal is to probe the origin and evolution of water-rich asteroids, with a focus on three main questions," the paper said.

"Where did the volatile-rich asteroids form and are these asteroids linked to specific meteorites? What does their chemical inventory and volatile abundances tell us about main belt evolution?"

To answer these questions, the mission will determine the geologic history and volatile content of multiple main belt asteroids and investigate the interior structure of the rendezvous target.

It would also determine temperatures and thermophysical properties on multiple asteroids to assess their surface evolution and volatile histories.

"Using a suite of remote sensing instruments, the mission will make up-close observations of seven asteroids, including a rendezvous with (269) Justitia, a 54km diameter extremely red object with possible origins in the distant solar system," the paper said.

"Among the flyby targets are (623) Chimaera, the largest remnant of the primitive C-type Chimaera family, and members of the Baptistina, Eos, Erigone, and Euterpe families.

"Five of the seven targets are C-complex, allowing the mission to characterise a diverse set of carbonaceous bodies, some potentially rich in phyllosilicates, that form a key piece of the puzzle of early solar system formation and its subsequent dynamical evolution."

Electric spacecraft

The spacecraft will use a solar electric propulsion system for flybys, as well as gravity assistance of Venus, Earth and Mars.

The name of the spacecraft has not been revealed yet.

There will be several payloads on the spacecraft, including remote sensing instruments such as a visible narrow-angle camera, a mid-wave infrared spectrometer, a thermal infrared spectrometer and camera.

"Each of these instruments acquires data during asteroid flyby observations and during rendezvous and proximity operations with (269) Justitia," the paper said.

Through the project, the space agency hopes to boost the private space sector in the UAE.

Start-ups and established companies will build about 50 per cent of the spacecraft, helping the national economy.

For decades, space programmes were government-run, but now the private sector has become a major player.

Updated: May 10, 2023, 3:16 AM