MBR Explorer probe will study seven rocky bodies in the Solar System and is the Gulf country's first with private investment

Emirates sets course for distant asteroid belt after Mars and Moon missions

PHOTO/Dubái Media Office - La presidenta de la Agencia Espacial de Emiratos, Sarah al-Amiri, explica los puntos clave de la misión interplanetaria MBR Explorer con destino al cinturón de asteroides
PHOTO/Dubai Media Office - Emirates Space Agency President Sarah al-Amiri explains the key points of the MBR Explorer interplanetary mission to the asteroid belt

The political authorities of the United Arab Emirates have taken the country's leading role in the international space arena very seriously and have given a new impetus to its contribution to the exploration of the Solar System.

The director general of the UAE Space Agency, Salem Butti Salem al-Qubaisi, has just confirmed the launch of an ambitious interplanetary mission to explore seven cosmic rocky bodies out of the several million that make up the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, between 150 and 375 million kilometres from Earth.

He made the announcement to the 100 or so delegates from countries attending the 66th meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) held a few weeks ago in Vienna, Austria. The Committee is chaired by Omran Sharaf, the Emirati Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for Science and High Technology.

PHOTO/WAM - Salem Butti Salem al-Qubaisi, director general de la Agencia Espacial emiratí, expone las líneas maestras del proyecto ante el Comité de la ONU para la Utilización del Espacio Ultraterrestre con Fines Pacíficos
PHOTO/WAM - Salem Butti Salem al-Qubaisi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, outlines the project to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

The scientific purpose of the mission is to open windows to a better understanding of the characteristics, origins, formation and evolution of asteroids, especially those richest in water. The initiative has been named MBR Explorer, in recognition of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, who has been the inspiration behind the diversification of the country's economy, the driving force behind the National Space Strategy and has stimulated the Emirates' multi-million dollar investment in the space sector.

The MBR Explorer programme will have a duration of 13 years, the first six of which are dedicated to the development and manufacture of the spacecraft. The next seven years correspond to its long journey and subsequent stay in the main asteroid belt beyond Mars and near Jupiter.

PHOTO/Southwest Research Institute - La forma exterior de MBR Explorer es semejante a la sonda Lucy de la NASA, en órbita desde octubre de 2021 para estudiar los asteroides “troyanos” de Júpiter
PHOTO/Southwest Research Institute - MBR Explorer's exterior shape resembles NASA's Lucy probe, which will orbit Jupiter's "Trojan" asteroids from October 2021

Accelerating the growth of the private space sector

Sarah al-Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology and also chairperson of the Emirates Space Agency, stresses that the significance of the new interplanetary mission is intended to "create highly skilled jobs for young Emiratis and instil in the younger generation the motto that 'the impossible is possible'".

But MBR Explorer has not only scientific, technological and educational components, but also economic and industrial ones. The intention of the Gulf nation's president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, which has been endorsed by the head of the Emirati Agency's space missions department, Mohsen al-Awadhi, who is also in charge of the mission, is to "accelerate the expansion of the private space sector in our country and expand our technological innovation capabilities".

For this reason, the director general of the Space Agency emphasises that MBR Explorer also wants to generate "strategic partnerships with local private investors, so that they will finance half of the programme and future space projects". A first attempt at public-private cooperation did not reach the optimum level in the failed Rashid lunar rover mission, "but we have tried again with Rashid 2 in 2024". 

PHOTO/WAM - La también ministra de Educación Pública y Tecnología Avanzada, Sarah al-Amiri, confía en que MBR Explorer ayude a crear empleos de alta cualificación entre las nuevas generaciones del país
PHOTO/WAM - The Minister of Public Education and Advanced Technology, Sarah al-Amiri, is confident that MBR Explorer will help create high-skilled jobs for the country's younger generation

In order to raise investor interest in the asteroid-bound probe, the space agency has activated the "Space Means Business" initiative. It aims to enable companies based in the country to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the mission to, for example, design and manufacture software and hardware, assemble subsystems, develop solar power panels or contribute technologies to mission management operations.

The MBR Explorer spacecraft is currently in the design phase, but it is already known that it will have an exterior shape similar to that of NASA's Lucy spacecraft, which was launched into orbit on 16 October 2021 to study the so-called "Trojans", asteroids located in the orbit of the gassy planet Jupiter.

PHOTO/Dubái Media Office - El Gobierno de Emiratos tiene el máximo interés en que los inversores privados aprovechen la misión para poner en marcha en el país fábricas de software, hardware y otras tecnologías
PHOTO/Dubai Media Office - The UAE government is keen for private investors to take advantage of the mission to set up software, hardware and other technology factories in the country

On the hunt for seven tiny rocky bodies 

Powered by two electric motors, it will have a wingspan of 16.4 meters and a maximum take-off weight of just under 3 tonnes. It will have two circular solar panels, each 7 metres in diameter, similar to Lucy's, which will generate the electricity for four scientific instruments to operate at great distances from the Sun. Their measurements will determine the density, temperature, physical and thermal properties of each asteroid and will be used to extract a better understanding of the Solar System.

Barring any surprises, the launch into space will be carried out by the new Japanese H-3 vector, which has not yet entered service. But there is more than enough time for it to do so, because the H-3 launch window to place the Emirati probe in the path of the asteroid belt will open in early March 2028 and last for three weeks.

PHOTO/WAM - La sonda sobrevolará, orbitará y estudiará el asteroide 269 Justitia desde una distancia aproximada de 150 kilómetros. Al final, soltará un pequeño objeto robótico para explorar su superficie
PHOTO/WAM - The probe will fly over, orbit and study asteroid 269 Justitia from a distance of about 150 kilometres. At the end, it will drop a small robotic object to explore its surface

These dates in the spring of five years from now are the time period in which the optimal conditions exist to fly over Venus, Earth and Mars and obtain gravity assists from the three planets. Thanks to these aids, the spacecraft will gradually increase its speed and reach the asteroid belt in 2029, but the total distance travelled by the spacecraft will be extended to 5 billion kilometres.

MBR Explorer is to explore seven rocky bodies with a diameter of between 10 and 50 kilometres in this cosmic environment. The final stage will come in 2035 and will consist of reaching the large and mysterious seventh reddish-coloured asteroid, coded 269 Justitia, one of the two with a diameter of half a hundred kilometres.

PHOTO/Dubái Media Office - La misión a los asteroides ha recibido el nombre de MBR Explorer, en reconocimiento al jeque Mohamed bin Rashid (centro), impulsor de las millonarias inversiones de Emiratos en el sector espacial
PHOTO/Dubai Media Office - The asteroid mission has been named MBR Explorer in recognition of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (centre), the driving force behind the Emirates' multi-million dollar investment in the space sector

The Emirati probe will fly over, orbit and study 269 Justitia from a distance of approximately 150 kilometres. MBR Explorer's crowning achievement will be to detach a small robotic object that will land on its surface, which is still under discussion as to whether it will be a surface module or a small vehicle.

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder has a special role in the conception, development and manufacture of the spacecraft. Better known as LASP - Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics - which was the main partner institution in making the 1.35-tonne UAE Martian probe Al-Amal, which will be three years in space on 19 July, a reality. The Italian Space Agency, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley are participating in the project and contributing their technology.