MBR Explorer: UAE Plans Space Mission to Explore Asteroid Belt

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.”

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.

The United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich country that is a bit smaller in size than the state of Maine, is a newcomer to spaceflight. Two decades ago, it did not have a space program.

Today it is increasingly active in space, part of a push to jump-start a high-tech industry in the country in preparation for a future when petroleum no longer flows as plentifully. That includes sending astronauts to the International Space Station, with one, Sultan al-Neyadi, currently in orbit.

In 2009 the Emirates’ first satellite, DubaiSat-1, reached orbit. It was built in South Korea, but Emirati engineers essentially worked as apprentices at the satellite manufacturer. Nine years later, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai built KhalifaSat, an Earth-observing satellite, without foreign help.

For the Mars mission, its first foray farther into the solar system, the Emirates again recruited foreign help, from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Hope launched in July 2020 and arrived in orbit around Mars seven months later. It continues to study how weather events like dust storms in the lower atmosphere affect the rate at which the thin atmosphere of Mars escapes into space. Recently it captured high-resolution images of Deimos, the smaller of the two Martian moons.

Emirati space officials discussed ideas of where to head next. “We actually looked at the whole solar system in terms of what happens next after the Emirates Mars mission,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

Pete Withnell, who served as project manager for the Emirates’ Mars mission, said the Colorado laboratory would have “an even more intense involvement” in the new asteroid mission.

Some Emiratis who started as aerospace novices building the Hope spacecraft are now among the leaders of the asteroid mission. That includes Mr. al-Awadhi, a former maintenance engineer for the Emirates airline who served as the lead systems engineer on the Mars mission.

Mr. Withnell said that the new spacecraft might be assembled in Colorado again and that other organizations were also involved. The Italian Space Agency is providing one of the spectrometer instruments, and Malin Space Science Systems of San Diego is building the two cameras.

But much more will be manufactured in the Emirates this time. Fifty percent of the money spent on the mission must be spent within the country.

“This is a requirement we did not have” for the Mars mission, Mr. al-Awadhi said, adding, “That’s a big difference.”

“We are looking at developing our local industry,” Ms. al-Amiri said.

The variety of asteroids that MBR Explorer visits will offer useful scientific comparisons for similar asteroids that will be visited on other missions, such as Lucy, a NASA mission that launched in 2021.

“I think it’s a good mission,” Hal Levison, the principal investigator for Lucy, said of the Emirati mission. “It’ll add something unique that NASA is not planning to do.”

Planetary scientists might be able to figure out whether Justitia really is an interloper from the outer solar system. But other bodies thought to be Kuiper belt objects that have been pushed inward are more grayish-reddish. “The interpretation of that is that the exposure of the sun is burning off some of the red stuff as you get closer,” he said.

Thus, Justitia, which is as red as a distant Kuiper belt object, seems too red for where it is.

“It supplies us with a mystery,” Dr. Levison said.



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