EXCLUSIVE: Our mission the most extensive study of main asteroid belt, says UAE space agency chair Sarah Al Amiri

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November 17, 2021 5:28 PM

To understand the mission and the space sector in the UAE, Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan spoke to Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister of Advanced Technology and Chair of the UAE Space Agency.

The UAE has been focusing a lot on developing its space sector in recent years. (Image: UAE space agency)

UAE space mission: The United Arab Emirates last year launched the Hope Probe to Mars as its first space exploration mission. The aim of the mission was to establish the growing capabilities of the UAE in the space sector, while scientifically, it aims to study Mars to understand if it could be inhabitable by humans some time in the future. Just over a year after the launch of the Hope (Al-Amal) probe, the country announced its plans of a new Emirati interplanetary mission that would accelerate the space engineering, scientific research, and exploration capabilities of Abu Dhabi. The ‘Beyond Mars’ mission, scheduled for launch in 2028, would explore the main asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. “The second UAE exploration mission after the Emirates Mars Mission is a mission to explore the asteroid belt, with a flyby by Venus. It will be studying 7 asteroids before landing on the last one,” Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister of Advanced Technology and Chair of the UAE Space Agency told Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan in an exclusive interaction.

The mission will make a journey of 3.6 billion kilometers across a period of five years, during which time it will first go to Venus for a flyby while collecting important data from the planet. During this time, the spacecraft would be subject to high temperatures during its closest solar approach of 109 million kilometres, demonstrating the capabilities of the Emirati spacecraft. The mission would then come back to the Earth, where it would perform a gravity assist maneouvre to gain enough velocity to reach the main asteroid belt beyond Mars. In the main belt, it will orbit around and study six asteroids before reaching the seventh asteroid after the completion of the fifth year. The mission will land on the seventh asteroid and then spend another year on its surface to collect data and make observations.

The mission will make a journey of 3.6 billion kilometers across a period of five years, during which time it will first go to Venus for a flyby while collecting important data from the planet. (Image: UAE space agency)

The UAE has been focusing a lot on developing its space sector in recent years. The UAE Minister explained how the mission would fit into that vision. “The purpose from the space sector within the UAE is to develop science and technology capabilities and start impacting the economy directly. This new mission is going to develop capabilities in the private sector and create the necessary impact to develop a space industry. We’ll be working very closely with companies and those that are interested in opening up,” she said.

While the mission will serve as an important step in the development of the space sector in the UAE, it will also have scientific purposes to fulfil. “The scientific objectives are currently being drafted along with selection of the instruments. They will be around understanding the asteroid belt from the perspective that it gives us a better understanding of the solar system overall and the origins of the formation of planets. We also look at the asteroid belt as a mechanism to further space exploration in the future,” she shared.

For those who keep up to date with the developments in the space sector, US space agency NASA has also recently launched its Lucy mission to space, which will study eight asteroids. So, is the Emirates mission similar to Lucy? The UAE Minister says, “Lucy Mission is going to study the Trojans. The Trojans are asteroids that are within the orbit of Jupiter. They’ve been attracted by Jupiter’s large gravitational force. That mission would be complementary to the Emirates’s mission to the asteroid belt as it would study different parts of the different types of asteroids and provide us with an extensive understanding of that. Our mission will be considered the most extensive study of the main asteroid belt. So that, in conjunction with studying the Trojans which are closer to Jupiter, will give us a better understanding over the course of the next 10 years about the origins of our solar system.”

Have the asteroids been decided upon yet? “That information would be announced in the first half of next year. We are actually currently working on identifying based on our science requirements, like what are the right asteroids to get to. There are also limitations when it comes to the design of the spacecraft. So these are all currently within the trade space where we’re determining the spacecraft performance alongside finalising the science objectives, like how we will observe the asteroids and what the right target asteroids are to be able to meet our objectives,” Sarah Al Amiri said.

While sample return missions are gathering pace across the globe, Emirates mission to asteroids will only land on the seventh asteroid and it will not be a sample return mission, the minister confirmed.

The mission will take off in 2028. (Image: UAE space agency)

The Emirates Mars Mission was the first space exploration mission that the Middle Eastern country carried out, and it is still ongoing and sending back data. It is understandable, then, that the Mars mission might help in shaping how the asteroid mission turns out. “We’ve invested quite extensively in the spacecraft design of the Hope probe and we’ll be utilising some elements from within the design of the Hope probe, but adding onto it, because this mission is slightly different, our power system would need to change because we’re going much further away from the Sun. Our thermal control system that supports the life of the spacecraft also needs to be changed because we’re getting closer to the Sun than the Hope probe, and then it is the same thing with communications. Because we’re further away from the Earth, we will need to transform the communication mechanism. Then there is the aspect operations, which is also going to change because we’re orbiting around the Sun rather than orbiting around the planets. So, there’s a few changes, but we will still be relying on a baseline design coming from the Hope probe,” she explained.

We also asked for an update on the Hope probe that reached the orbit of Mars in February this year. “The mission is in Mars’ orbit, and the first set of data has been released to the public. Anybody from the public, including scientists can download and utilise this data in their own scientific research. The spacecraft is continuously collecting data because we’re mapping the atmosphere of Mars and its weather system throughout an entire year and throughout an entire day as well. We’re looking forward to the scientific findings that will come out of it. We’ve gotten two interesting observations on the back of this mission that are considered new in nature. The first is observing the discrete auroras of Mars. That was a surprise to us but provides a good understanding. It will provide us with a better understanding of the atmosphere of Mars and its interactions. The other aspect is finding higher than expected levels of oxygen in the upper atmosphere of Mars. Again, that’s something that we’ll continue to understand because it’s different from the theories that are currently in place,” the UAE Advanced Technology Minister shared.

The spacecraft will land on the seventh asteroid. (Image: UAE Space Agency)

This, however, is only the beginning in the space sector for the UAE, as per the country. The minister shared with us some more details about the different developments that the UAE is working on for forwarding its space mission. “Absolutely so on top of the exploration programme that I just spoke about, the UAE is focusing quite extensively on the space industry over the course of the next five years. What that means is that we need further investments and further development of capabilities and attraction of companies and development of locally based companies in Earth observation products and services. The other aspect is also, and that’s for example, for imaging for better farming practises for coastline monitoring, for better urban planning and so on, and then another aspect will be a focus on communications. So those are areas that the UAE will continue to look at. Of course, those two areas drive demand for spacecrafts and spacecraft systems and subsystems, and, therefore, it will create an amazing spill-over in the development of technology in terms of electronics and in terms of hardware and software that goes into the development of satellites and operating and monitoring them,” she said.

She also shared where she believes the future of space exploration lies. “It’s quite vast, the more countries that come into space exploration, the better we have an understanding of the world around us, and it’s important for us to get an understanding of the world around us not only for the technological advancement that always has a spillover in our daily lives, but also getting a better scientific understanding of our own planet. That’s going to continue, so the human race is going towards exploration of the Moon and then Mars by astronauts. We will continue to see these spacecrafts learning about our solar system – the moons of our solar system provide interesting findings. The moons of the larger planets, both Saturn and Jupiter, provide a better understanding on life and formation of life. We also think there will be continuous studying of planets like ours, and Mars is going to be in play, and we do see upcoming a few asteroid missions to gain a better understanding of the asteroid belt, of near-Earth asteroids, as well as asteroids that are around other planets. Then we will see the Charles Webb Telescope going up in space, studying far off galaxies and systems, that will lead to us having a better insight as a global scientific community.

Is the UAE looking to work with the national space missions of other countries, though? “On the international front, we work very closely with countries around the world to ensure the continuous, peaceful use of outer space. There’s a lot of outreach component that goes into our work with different space agencies to ensure that there is alignment in terms of programmes, objectives and development. Especially when you’re talking about exploration, it’s very important to be inclusive from that perspective because you’re not benefiting any single nation. It is for the benefit of our understanding and it pushes boundaries forward,” she shared.

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