When Nasa discontinued its Space Shuttle programme in 2011, it began relying on Russia to get its astronauts into space. For years, only the Soyuz rocket could send humans into orbit and all the foreign partners of the International Space Station – the US, Europe, Canada and Japan – became dependent on Moscow.
It was particularly embarrassing for the US because although the American component accounted for most of the orbiting outpost, it now had no ride of its own to get there. This was welcome news for Russia’s space agency, however, which needed the money.
That all changed when the US space agency started investing more in private companies. It is now launching its astronauts on SpaceX rockets and could also use Boeing’s Starliner capsule soon. This public-private partnership strategy is being used in other parts of the world because governments have learned the hard way that they cannot do space exploration alone, owing to limited budgets and a lack of people with the necessary skills.
The UAE is taking a similar approach to the US and is supporting its private space sector – a step that will help its rate of missions increase significantly, and possibly contribute to the national economy.
Details of the country’s most challenging space mission were revealed this week – a spacecraft called the MBR Explorer will embark on a five-billion-kilometre journey in 2028 to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to study six of the rocky bodies and attempt a landing on a seventh.
The mission will take 13 years to complete: six years to develop the spacecraft followed by a seven-year flight to the belt. It is also taking place with significant international co-operation that could eventually boost private-sector space business in the Emirates.
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.
Two Emirati start-ups have already secured contracts to develop a lander that will be deployed by the spacecraft for the asteroid touchdown attempt.
The mission could also pave the way for a very lucrative business that many companies and agencies have set their sights on – asteroid mining.
One of the main science goals of the mission is to add to our understanding of how our solar system was formed and the presence and origins of the building blocks of life found in the asteroid belt. But the belt is also rich with $700 quintillion worth of minerals such as iron, gold and nickel – enough to make everyone on Earth multibillionaires. Water on the asteroids could also be valuable, because it can be turned into hydrogen that can fuel spaceships.
The UAE Space Agency has already said that the mission could “lay the ground for possible future resource extraction from asteroids”.
If the agency does manage to achieve its goal of establishing a private space sector, it would lead to companies competing for government contracts and businesses developing independent projects, ultimately increasing the number of exploration missions undertaken by the country.
This is exactly the ecosystem the US has created in its overall space sector, and one that China is also trying to set up. But reaching an established industry in the UAE could take a while, as there are a limited number of space companies here as of now.
However, UAE legislation makes it easier for business to set up operations and it has attracted several new companies in the past few years. The UAE Space Agency has also launched a Dh3 billion fund that will be invested in businesses.
The Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt is the first major space endeavour to take advantage of the companies that have been set up here so far. It will play a crucial role in defining the direction that the sector in the UAE, as well as the region, will take in the coming years.
Interestingly, many countries, including the US and Luxembourg, have now introduced legislation that allows companies working with national space agencies to keep the resources they mine in space. The UAE also allows this under its space law, but only to companies that have built their mining technology in the Emirates.
However, the scientific and engineering challenges are significant. Only a few countries have succeeded in asteroid-return missions. Both of Japan’s Hayabusa missions successfully delivered material from two different asteroids. However, the first mission brought back grains showed only ordinary chondrites, the most common type of meteorite.
Nasa's OSIRIS-REx, the first American mission to collect a sample from an asteroid, is scheduled to return to Earth in September with material from an asteroid called Bennu.
The MBR Explorer is not part of a return mission, but it is hoped that the spacecraft will capture enough data that could one day help develop a similar kind of project.
It would be an interesting market for Emirati, and even regional, companies to tap into, as countries look past oil. But the most immediate outcome the Emirati space agency is hoping for is a lift for the local private space sector to complement the mission’s scientific value.
Scientists are interested in the asteroid belt because it contains remnants of the solar system and could give clues as to how Earth and other planets were formed.
The asteroid the MBR Explorer will land on, 269 Justitia, is the one scientists are most interested in because of mysterious appearance. While most asteroids are blueish, this one has a reddish hue with possible origins from the distant solar system.
The MBR Explorer’s work will build on the scientific observations of Mars carried out by the UAE’s Hope probe. These have benefitted the science community worldwide, with several peer-reviewed science journals using the spacecraft’s findings to better understand the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
It helped the country establish its name in the global space sector, and the asteroid belt mission will help take the hard work by Emirati scientists and researchers to even greater heights.
Sarwat Nasir is the space editor at The National