Businesses bid to join UAE's asteroid belt mission in private sector push

Dozens of companies offer their services for major space project at Dubai event on Thursday

Enterprising businesses from across the globe have made their pitch to join the UAE’s most ambitious space mission to date, a landmark journey to an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The UAE Space Agency is working on developing the MBR Explorer spacecraft, which will launch to the main asteroid belt in 2028 to study six asteroids and attempt a landing on a seventh.

A workshop on how companies can get involved was held at the agency’s Dubai office on Thursday, which was attended by representatives of more than 160 local and international companies.

The agency hopes that 50 per cent of the complex mission – including the spacecraft itself – will be developed by the private sector to ensure that space activities are contributing to the national economy.

Private sector push

Ashraf Al Bahlawan is the co-founder of AstroStructures, a start-up based in the UK that is hoping to secure a contract with the space agency.

The company provides mechanical engineering services for spacecraft, particularly scientific instruments.

“What I see as a very interesting opportunity for us as a company is that science missions with this level of significance, there's obviously going to be instruments that we could contribute,” Mr Al Bahlawan told The National.

“We are here to help the UAE Space Agency in developing these instruments from an engineering perspective.”

For decades, space programmes were mostly operated by government-run agencies, but an ecosystem that involves both the public and private sector is helping to develop missions faster and at a higher rate.

US space agency Nasa has been leading the way in this kind of co-operation, having invested heavily in the private space sector, and is now launching its astronauts on SpaceX rockets and plans to use human lunar landers built by private companies.

“Historically, we've seen space agencies and the industry in general, limiting itself to his domestic capability,” said Mr Al Bahlawan.

“And it was a very kind of closed door, but now we're seeing a much more open and international way of working together, and the UAE is really spearheading in this.”

Lloyd Jacob Lopez, the chief executive of Hex20, a satellite manufacturing company based in Australia, is also interested in winning a contract from the UAE Space Agency.

The company has worked on projects with the Australian and French space agencies, and previously worked with the UAE Space Agency on its Hope Mars mission to train Emirati youth.

“We're looking into the asteroid belt mission now,” he said.

“We've been working with the UAE space agency for quite some time now. We've done the training for them and now we've been invited for this event to look at possible opportunities in collaborating with the local companies here and pitch for this project.”

The agency launched its “Space Means Business” campaign on June 14, announcing that it had about 30 opportunities available for local and international companies to be involved in building the MBR Explorer spacecraft, named after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

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

This means there are long-term contracts on offer by the UAE Space Agency that companies could bid for.

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

The asteroid belt contains remnants of the solar system and could give clues on how Earth and other planets were formed.

Updated: June 23, 2023, 4:00 AM