Sarah al-Amiri, chairwoman of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency, has announced that they are heading for the asteroid belt on a spacecraft named MBR Explorer, scheduled to launch in 2028.
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Building off the success of its Hope spacecraft, which is still circling and studying Mars, the United Arab Emirates announced on Monday plans for an ambitious follow-up mission: a grand tour of the asteroid belt.
“The asteroid belt mission was the right amount of challenge,” said Sarah al-Amiri, chairwoman of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency. “Interesting science relevant to the science community, good opportunities for collaboration.”
The spacecraft, named MBR Explorer after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is scheduled to launch in 2028. In February 2030, the spacecraft will arrive at Westerwald, a 1.4-mile-wide asteroid, zipping past at 20,000 miles per hour on its way to visit six more objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“We would get a more detailed look at the surface of the asteroid,” said Hoor al-Mazmi, the science lead for the mission. “And we would understand the interior density and the structure of the asteroid.”
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The seventh asteroid, Justitia, is the most intriguing. About 30 miles wide, Justitia is very reddish, an unusual color for an asteroid. Indeed, it looks more like one of the small icy worlds found in the Kuiper belt, circling the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune.
That has led planetary scientists to speculate that Justitia formed in the outer reaches of the solar system and then was scattered inward by the shifting orbits of the giant planets, eventually joining the asteroid belt.
If that is true, a visit to Justitia would provide a close-up study of a Kuiper belt object without the long trip to the solar system’s distant reaches.
The MBR Explorer is scheduled to sidle up within a few hundred feet of Justitia in October 2034 and spend at least seven months studying it with cameras and spectrometers that will be able to identify the asteroid’s composition, including the presence of water. The reddish color is believed to point to carbon-based molecules that are the building blocks for life. The spacecraft will also drop off a small lander to set down on Justitia’s surface.
With a mass of over two tons, the MBR Explorer will be bigger than the Emirates’ Hope spacecraft, which went to Mars. For flybys of the first six asteroids, the spacecraft will be traveling quickly, requiring precise navigation to ensure the instruments are pointed at the asteroid.
“The complexity adds up,” said Mohsen al-Awadhi, the program director of the mission.
And the spacecraft has to launch within a three-week period in March 2028 to be able to make all the planned flybys. If it cannot get off the ground then, the entire mission has to be replanned, probably with new asteroid destinations.
To date, NASA, the European Space Agency, China and JAXA, the Japanese space agency, have sent robotic spacecraft to asteroids.
Lin Xiqiang, the deputy director of China’s Manned Space Agency, has announced the country’s plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2030.