Codename Max: The inside story of the UAE's mission to the main asteroid belt

The UAE Space Agency started working on a secret, more advanced mission even before launching a probe to Mars

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The launch of the UAE's mission to Mars made headlines around the world, but there was another, more complex, Emirati mission brewing in the background – codenamed Max.

About a year before the Hope probe blasted off in 2020, the UAE Space Agency started brainstorming ideas that would take the country's ambitions beyond the Red Planet and test the limits of its engineers and private space sector.

After considering a few missions, the agency came up with a concept plan of a mission to the main asteroid belt in 2019.

It would mean a journey that would take an Emirati spacecraft on a 5 billion km trip to a region between Mars and Jupiter – seven times the distance the Hope probe travelled to reach the Red Planet in February 2021 – to study numerous asteroids.

Minister outlines vision

“The initial idea of what should we do after the Emirates Mars Mission actually started one or two years prior to the launch of the Hope probe,” Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology, and chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, exclusively told The National on Wednesday.

“We were looking at how do you take capabilities that were developed across the Emirates Mars Mission and plug it into another mission.

“And then have the other mission become a wider, overarching programme that takes transfer of know-how to the next level.”

The initial version of the MBR Explorer. Photo: UAE Space Agency

She said the agency considered a second mission to the Moon's surface, but the journey to the asteroid belt would “up the game” and would allow it to design a much more advanced spacecraft and tap into interesting science.

It took nearly four years for the agency to map out the project, with hushed tones around the secret mission known as multiple asteroid exploration, or Max.

A few details of the mission were made public in 2021, but it still did not have a name then, nor a concrete science or spacecraft design plan.

Voyage deep into space

On Sunday, the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, or EMA, was unveiled.

It involves the MBR Explorer – a spacecraft named after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai – in 2028.

It is a 13-year mission overall, with six years to develop the spacecraft, followed by a seven-year flight the belt.

The MBR Explorer will fly by six asteroids and then attempt a landing on the seventh one, performing fly-bys of Venus, Earth and Mars on the way to the belt.

“After the success of arrival to Mars, we started having discussions with the government in regards to what's next,” Ms Al Amiri said.

“We were grateful to have been given a go-ahead and funding for this programme moving forward.”

The agency hopes that more than 50 per cent of the spacecraft will be developed by private companies in the UAE, in collaboration with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder – the same organisation that helped build the Hope probe.

A Dh3 billion National Space Fund was also launched to help expand the private space scene in the country.

“If what we're currently doing, with regards to our programmes, you'll see where we're using exploration missions to be able to expedite and develop a higher capability cadence.

“But we're using programmes, such as Sirb, to unlock capabilities within the UAE sector and develop commercial value.”

Updated: May 30, 2023, 9:14 AM