UAE searches for companies to build asteroid belt spacecraft

The MBR Explorer will study seven asteroids between Mars and Jupiter

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The UAE Space Agency has begun its search for private companies that can help develop their most ambitious space project yet – a mission to an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A new campaign called 'Space Means Business' was launched on Wednesday, giving about 30 opportunities available for local and international companies to be involved in building the MBR Explorer spacecraft.

It will embark on a five-billion-kilometre journey in 2028 to perform fly-bys of six asteroids and then send a lander that will touchdown on the seventh.

Mohsen Al Awadhi, programme director of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, told The National in an interview that about 84 space companies based in the UAE have registered their interest so far.

“We are making all of the opportunities that are available very clear to the businesses through this campaign,” he said.

Contributing to the UAE economy

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder was awarded a contract to develop the mission, but the space agency hopes that 50 per cent of the spacecraft will be built by the private sector.

It is the agency's latest initiative to ensure the space sector is contributing to the national economy.

A series of workshops by the agency are being held for businesses, with the first taking place on June 22 to outline potential areas for private sector participation.

“From software development to mission control, we are committed to a private sector first approach to developing the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt,” Mr Mohsen said.

“The opportunities are truly endless, from software and hardware systems design and delivery through to subsystem assembly, solar power and other electrical systems development to mission operations and management.”

In the long run, the space agency hopes that this mission would eventually create economic opportunities, including growing the number of starts ups in the country, more international partnerships and increased investment in the UAE space sector.

Interesting science investigations

The science community could also benefit from the mission, with the spacecraft set to explore mysterious asteroids, rich with water.

Scientists are also 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.

The mission will take 13 years to complete overall, with six years spent developing the spacecraft followed by a seven-year flight to the belt.

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.

EMA has to launch in a three-week period from March 3, 2028, as there is only one opportunity to execute the mission plan.

The spacecraft will use gravitational forces from Venus, Earth and Mars to change its velocity to reach the asteroid belt.

The MBR Explorer will perform close fly-bys of up to 150km from its seven target asteroids, at speeds of up to 33,000km/h.

Its first planetary encounter with Venus is expected to take place in July 2028.

Updated: June 14, 2023, 9:51 AM