Everything you need to know about the UAE's mission to the asteroid belt

Six-year mission will give the Emirates a chance to explore seven asteroids

Space rocks in the main asteroid belt. Photo: Lynette Cook / WM Keck Observatory / ROOM
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It is the busiest year in space exploration for the UAE, with another ambitious mission on the horizon.

The UAE Space Agency has finalised the science objectives and spacecraft design for a mission to the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter.

The Emirates hopes to launch the spacecraft in 2028 on a six-year journey to the main asteroid belt.

The mission was first announced in 2021, but details have been revealed in a paper that will be presented to a conference in the US in June.

The National breaks down everything you need to know about the UAE's mission to the asteroid belt.

What exactly is the mission?

The spacecraft, whose name has not yet been announced, will aim to study seven asteroids.

It will journey past six space rocks, gathering data as it goes, before attempting a landing on a seventh.

To reach the belt, it will use gravity assistance from Venus, Earth and Mars.

It may capture images of Venus, sometimes called Earth's evil twin because it has a similar size and structure, but with a surface temperature of up to 400°C.

The project will be run by the UAE Space Agency, with the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics helping in its development.

The same university helped the agency's Hope probe achieve its mission to Mars.

The space agency hopes to boost the private space sector in the UAE through its latest mission.

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

Why the asteroid belt?

Scientists are interested in the asteroid belt because it contains remnants of the solar system and could give clues into how Earth and other planets were formed.

Nasa estimates that it contains between 1.1 million and 1.9 million asteroids larger than 1km in diameter, and millions more smaller ones.

“Early in the history of the solar system, the gravity of newly formed Jupiter brought an end to the formation of planetary bodies in this region and caused the small bodies to collide with one another, fragmenting them into the asteroids we observe today,” Nasa's website explains.

The seven asteroids that the UAE spacecraft will explore are 10253 Westerwald, 623 Chimaera, 13294 Rockox, 88055, 23871, 59980. The craft will then attempt to land on 269 Justitia.

Asteroid 623 Chimaera is the largest leftover piece from the C-type Chimaera family and is one of the most ancient objects in the solar system.

The 269 Justitia is another mysterious rock with a reddish hue and possible origins in the distant solar system.

Apart from the scientific value, Nasa has previously estimated that the mineral wealth in the belt's asteroids is equivalent to about $100 billion for every person on Earth today.

How will this help scientists?

Scientists hope that the mission will be able to answer several questions.

These include learning more about the origin and evolution of water-rich asteroids, what their chemical make-up reveals about the belt's evolution and if they are linked to specific meteorites.

To help unlock these mysteries, the spacecraft will capture data to reveal the geologic history and volatile content of the asteroids.

It will also investigate the interior structure of 269 Justitia and study the temperatures and thermophysical properties of several asteroids.

Scientists know that the belt has water-rich asteroids because of previous missions and discoveries made by ground-based telescopes.

Nasa's Dawn spacecraft, launched in 2007, found water-bearing minerals on the surface of Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt.

It also found abundant water ice on Ceres, another large body in the belt.

Nasa's Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft also beamed back images of asteroids in the belt in 1991.

What is the timeline?

The UAE Space Agency hopes to launch the spacecraft in early 2028.

It will perform a series of fly-bys and gravity assists at Venus, Earth and Mars before flying past its first asteroid in early 2030.

A sequence of six asteroid passes will be performed throughout 2033, with a landing attempt on 269 Justitia in April 2034.

The spacecraft will have large solar arrays and solar electric propulsion.

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

Other asteroids

Asteroids are not only found in the main asteroid belt.

There are also trojan asteroids, which share an orbit with a larger planet.

Nasa launched its Lucy spacecraft in 2021, which will visit eight asteroids over 12 years to study the evolution of the solar system.

It will fly past one main belt asteroid and seven trojan asteroids.

There are also near-Earth asteroids, which are rocks that pass close to Earth.

Last year, a Nasa spacecraft successfully deflected an asteroid by crashing into one of its rock's moons.

The test aimed to show that technology could be used to prevent an asteroid threat to Earth, if needed.

Updated: May 10, 2023, 11:59 AM