Researchers from the UAE Space Agency have captured new data concerning a mysterious asteroid they hope to land a spacecraft on.
The observations of Justitia helped to measure its size, orbit and albedo – how much light it reflects off its surface – with findings that will be released at a later date.
Studying the celestial object would help engineers and scientists to plan a route to it and attempt a landing in 2034 using the MBR Explorer spacecraft.
Justitia was visible for a few seconds in Wheatland, Wyoming, on August 31 and Emirati and American researchers were able to capture it, as it was passing in front of a star in a phenomenon known as occultation.
They used the disappearing light of the star as it was covered by the asteroid to take the measurements.
“It was a few seconds and it was very fast, so you couldn't afford to make any mistakes,” Hoor Al Mazmi, science lead at the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA), told The National on Friday.
“We have to know when the asteroid is going to pass in front of the star, so you see the light disappear from the star, and that's how you measure the size of the asteroid from where you are.
“It's a measurement of light of the star and how long it goes out for – you can measure the width of it as it passes in front of the star.”
It was a rare opportunity for the researchers that they had to take advantage of to understand Justitia better.
The UAE Space Agency hopes to launch the MBR Explorer to the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter, in 2028.
It will fly past six asteroids and attempt a landing on the seventh – Justitia.
Unravelling a space mystery
Scientists are most interested in Justitia because of its mysterious appearance. While most asteroids are bluish, this one has a reddish hue, with possible origins from our Solar System.
The craft will embark on a five billion km journey, during which it will use gravity assist manoeuvres from Venus, Earth and Mars to reach the asteroid belt.
Researchers had placed telescopes in 34 different sites, with two researchers assigned to each spot. The data is now being analysed by the team.
“Justicia is important to [the] EMA, which is why we were targeting it,” said Ms Al Mazmi.
“We wanted to better understand the size and get a more precise understanding of its orbit.”
The data will help the team know where the asteroid is “and where it's going to be once we get there” for the rendezvous, she said.
The six other celestial bodies that the UAE spacecraft will explore are 10253 Westerwald, 623 Chimaera, 13294 Rockox, 88055, 23871 and 59980.
Scientists are fascinated by the asteroid belt because it contains remnants of the solar system and could give clues into how Earth and other planets were formed.
Apart from science, EMA could also lay the ground for future asteroid resource extraction, with the asteroid belt reportedly containing $700 quintillion worth of minerals such as iron, gold and nickel.
The spacecraft has to launch in the three-week period from March 3, 2028, as there is only one opportunity to execute the mission plan.
It will perform close fly-bys at distances as close as 150km from its seven target asteroids, at speeds of up to 33,000kph.
Its first planetary encounter with Venus is expected to take place in July 2028.
The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US has been contracted to develop the MBR Explorer mission, and Emirati engineers and scientists will work with them.
But it will mostly be private companies, local and international, that will supply parts for the spacecraft.
If the agency does manage to achieve its goal of establishing a private space sector through this mission, it would lead to companies competing for government contracts and businesses developing independent projects.
This could help increase the number of exploration missions undertaken by the country.