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UAE to search for clues to origin of life in asteroid belt mission

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates >> The United Arab Emirates on Monday unveiled plans to send a spacecraft to explore the solar system’s main asteroid belt, the oil-rich nation’s latest space program following the successful launch of the Hope spacecraft to Mars in 2020.

The project, known as the Emirates Asteroid Belt Mission, aims to develop spacecraft over the next few years before launching in 2028 to study various asteroids.

“This mission is a follow-up to the Mars mission, which is the region’s first mission to Mars,” said Mohsen Al Awadhi, program director for the UAE Asteroid Belt Mission. “We’re creating the same thing with this mission. That is, it’s the first-ever mission to specifically explore these seven asteroids, and the first from a Grand Tour perspective.”

In February 2021, the Hope probe arrived at the red planet, and the UAE became the first and second Arab country to successfully enter the orbit of Mars. The spacecraft’s goals include providing the first complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers and helping answer key questions about Earth’s climate and composition.

If successful, the newly announced spacecraft will soar at 33,000 kilometers (20,500 miles) per hour, embarking on a seven-year voyage to discover six asteroids. It will eventually deploy a landing craft on a rare seventh “red” asteroid that scientists say may provide insight into the building blocks of life on Earth.

Organic compounds like water are an essential building block of life and have been found on some asteroids, possibly delivered through collisions with other organic-rich objects or through the creation of complex organic molecules in space. Studying the origin of these compounds, and the possible presence of water on red asteroids, could reveal the origin of Earth’s water and thus provide valuable insights into the origin of life on our planet.

The effort is a major milestone for the fledgling UAE space agency, which was just formed in 2014, as it follows on from the success of sending the Amal (or “Hope”) probe to Mars. The new journey will cover more than ten times the distance of the mission to Mars.

The explorer named the MBR after the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also served as vice president and prime minister of the hereditary-ruled UAE. It will head toward Venus first, whose gravity will bounce it back to Earth, then Mars.

The spacecraft will eventually reach the asteroid belt, flying nearly 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the celestial boulder for a total distance of 5 billion kilometers (about 3 billion miles).

In October 2034, the spacecraft is expected to make its final dash toward the seventh and final asteroid, named Justitia, before deploying a lander more than a year later. Justitia is thought to be one of only two known red asteroids that are thought to likely have a surface filled with organic material and originate in the region where giant planets formed, and beyond.

“It’s one of the two reddest objects in the asteroid belt, and scientists don’t really understand why it’s so red,” said Hoor AlMaazmi, a space science researcher at the UAE Space Agency. “There are theories that it originally came from the Kuiper belt, where there are more red objects. So that’s one thing we can look at, because it’s also potentially rich in water.”

MBR Explorer will deploy a landing craft to study the surface of Justitia, fully developed by a private UAE start-up company. It could lay the groundwork for possible future extraction of resources from asteroids, ultimately supporting extended human missions in space — perhaps even the UAE’s ambitious goal of establishing a colony on Mars by 2117.

“We have identified different key areas where we want private sector start-ups to engage and we will engage them through those areas. We know, you know the knowledge we have in the UAE is still under construction. Give them the knowledge they need,” Al Awadhi said.

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