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UAE looks to build on Mars mission success with tour of the asteroid belt

An artist's depiction of an asteroid.
An artist's depiction of an asteroid. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Less than a year after nailing its first interplanetary mission with a flawless Mars orbit insertion, the United Arab Emirates has selected its next destination: the asteroid belt.

In October, the UAE announced that it was aiming to launch a new spacecraft in 2028. Like the Hope Mars orbiter, the as-yet-unnamed asteroid mission is designed to meet specific science goals, but it is also being carefully engineered to shape the nation's future as the UAE looks to diversify its traditionally oil-focused economy. That gives the UAE's missions a different flavor than what NASA fans are used to seeing.

"We do this in a completely different mechanism," Sarah Al Amiri, the chair of the UAE Space Agency, told Space.com. "We don't have a typical process of proposals and then narrowing it down and so on. It's an interesting way of working, but I enjoy it thoroughly because you have everyone sitting at the same table — scientists, engineers, mission designers — discussing all these different potential programs."

Related: The greatest asteroid missions of all time!

The new mission will draw heavily on the team's experience with the Hope mission, which the UAE designed to arrive in orbit by the nation's 50th anniversary, which occurred this month. Hope, also known as the Emirates Mars Mission, was designed to push the nation's technical skills and ambitions while also finding a way to give the world's scientists a new batch of data to consider.

But even while Hope was still on Earth, before its launch in July 2020, UAE space leaders had begun to consider in the background what they could do next, Al Amiri said, considering multiple potential missions. (Al Amiri declined to provide any details about other missions the team considered in case the UAE revives them in the future.)

Dreaming up a new mission, the UAE wanted to start with what it had already built with Hope, but this time, incorporating the nation's private companies as well. "We used the Emirates Mars Mission to build capabilities and capacity in the country, and then we're using this mission to build capabilities and capacity in industry directly," Al Amiri said.

But carrying over from Hope is a key partnership with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, which signed onto the Mars mission in 2014. "Seven years ago, we had no idea what it would be like to work with the Emiratis," Pete Withnell, program manager for Hope at LASP, told Space.com. "It was challenging from a technical perspective, but very rewarding on a personal one, and we have lifelong friendships coming out of this."

Also familiar will be the spacecraft itself: Although the new asteroid probe will go to a different destination to do a different type of science than Hope, it will build directly on its predecessor's template for spacecraft design and construction.

That said, the new mission will need better heat protection to survive a swing past Venus on its way out to the asteroid belt, and it will need stronger power production to run on the reduced sunlight available farther from the sun.

"The soft spot was this mission, where it used enough of the Emirates Mars Mission to reduce risk, because it's a much harder mission to go to the asteroid belt," Al Amiri said. "It's enough change and enough challenge to be able to trigger it forward."

In embarking on another mission, the UAE also wanted to mimic the science approach it took for Hope: to focus on a destination of high interest but to chase a data set that would tell scientists something new about the solar system. For Hope, that meant studying the Martian climate and atmosphere using a unique orbit that allows the spacecraft to see much of the planet at once. For the new mission, it means developing a complex itinerary of asteroid visits culminating with a landing attempt.

A view of the Hope spacecraft in a clean room before the mission's launch in July 2020. (Image credit: MBRSC)

But which asteroids precisely, it's too early to say. So far, the team isn't focused on specific space rocks; instead, it is developing a mission sketch of what might be feasible given the spacecraft and some basic science goals.

"Because we're basing this off of a spacecraft design that we know with minor tweaks, that was part of our decision-making process actually — how much can this spacecraft handle?" Al Amiri said.

"We knew sort of the size of the asteroids that we needed to target and the types of maneuvering that the spacecraft needs to go through," she added. "Based on that we did an initial sort of orbit design of the spacecraft to identify where its route's going to be, around when do we launch."

Only now is the team beginning to evaluate precisely which asteroids the spacecraft can and should visit.

"I think that's the excitement of all this — it's sort of like choosing destination unknown," Heather Reed, who has also been a part of both missions from the LASP side, told Space.com. "With any luck, we have a varied set of things that we're looking at, so hopefully all of them are different."

The new mission joins a substantial list of spacecraft invested in understanding the secrets of asteroids. NASA is waiting for samples from a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu to be delivered in 2023. The agency also just launched the first-ever mission to the Trojan asteroids that orbit the sun at the same distance as Jupiter and is preparing for next year's launch of a mission designed to unpack the secrets of an asteroid that appears to be mostly metal.

Meanwhile, last year, Japan celebrated a delivery of samples drawn from an asteroid called Ryugu, which it just shared with NASA. Japan and China are each planning to launch an asteroid mission later in the decade; Europe is building a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid after NASA slams its own spacecraft into the space rock next fall.

But despite the interest in the asteroid belt and even without a firm sense of the instruments the spacecraft will carry, there's little chance that the UAE can go there and learn nothing new, since it's "a largely unexplored region of space," Withnell said.

"The asteroid belt provides a good snapshot in the past, our understanding of the evolution of our solar system, and a snapshot into the future into the role they will play in space exploration," Al Amiri said.

"There is so much new to discover," Reed said. "All we have to do is get there, right?"

That, of course, is the challenge the team will tackle over the next five years as the project works toward a 2028 launch date.

"The Emiratis like to do things big and they don't like particularly to do them in a safe way. They like to take risks," Withnell said. "Those are two things that speak very well to engineers and scientists."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.