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KT Exclusive: UAE's Venus mission is five times more complex than Mars trip, says Sarah Al Amiri

Sahim Salim and Abhishek Sengupta/Dubai
Filed on October 6, 2021

The minister shares how the country is preparing for its next space odyssey.

Work on the just-announced Emirati space mission to the asteroid belt began four months ago, the chair of the UAE Space Agency told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview.

The ambitious interplanetary mission — the UAE’s second after the Hope Probe’s successful journey to the Red Planet — will explore the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This belt is the source of most meteorites that impact Earth.

ALSO READ: 9 things to know about the UAE's grand plan to explore Venus, asteroid belt

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Sarah Al Amiri, who is also Minister of State for Advanced Technology, said the project is currently in the ‘mission concept’ phase.

“This is the first phase of development of any space mission. At the end of this sprint on the mission concept, we hope to finalise the…scientific objectives and what technology demonstrators to have on board,” she said.

Work is “well under way” for the team to meet the seven-year development timeline and get ready for launch in early 2028, she added.

Does the mission have a name yet?

The UAE’s mission to Mars had a striking name that resonated with the masses. Al Amal (Hope in Arabic) had inspired millions.

When asked if the current mission already has a name, Al Amiri said: “We don’t, yet. Right now, we’re calling it the ‘mission to the asteroid belt with a flyby by Venus’. As we continue developing what our science objectives are and what the instrument suite is going to be, it’ll be interesting to see how the name evolves.”

The Emirati spacecraft will undertake a 3.6-billion-kilometre, five-year journey after launching in 2028. It will perform gravity-assist manoeuvres by orbiting Venus and then Earth to build the velocity required to reach the main asteroid belt, which is located beyond Mars.

ALSO READ: 10 facts about Venus, the next stop in UAE's space journey

Mission: Possible

Here's an inspiring launch video shared by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai:

“The Mars mission, as you know, took about six years of development. This (new one has) an additional year because of the added technological complexity. But what’s remarkable here is that it is still well under typical development timelines for a mission of this class globally,” said Al Amiri.

The UAE’s space missions so far have been several times more complex than the previous ones.

As Al Amiri explained during the announcement, the Emirates Mars Mission was five times more complex than the earth observation satellites the country was developing before that. The new mission, she said, is “five times more complex” than the historic odyssey to the Red Planet.

Landing on an asteroid

The UAE will undertake the first Arab mission — and the fourth globally — that will land a spacecraft on an asteroid.

When asked if the UAE has identified the asteroid it will land on, Al Amiri said: “At the moment, we are better understanding the gaps in science.

“The US will launch a mission next week, called the Lucy Mission, which will go to the Trojan asteroids … situated around Jupiter’s orbit. So, what we’re trying to find … is the science that...will be complementary to other missions.

“We can talk to more people about it right now and make sure that we’re harnessing the right expertise to be able to select the ultimate asteroid that we will land on,” the UAE Space Agency chief added.

But why asteroids?

Al Amiri explained: “The asteroid belt is situated between Mars and Jupiter. The reason that area hasn’t formed into a planet is the strong gravitational force that comes from Jupiter. So, it gives you an idea of some of the building blocks of planets and their formations.”

Challenges

The Emirati spacecraft’s trajectory around Venus will see it reaching a solar proximity of 109 million kilometres, requiring substantial thermal protection. But then it will also go as far as 448 million kilometres from the sun, so the team will have to operate it with ‘very little solar energy’.

The mission is, indeed, very challenging, but the team will build on the experience it gained through the Mars probe.

“We have to change our thermal control system because of the amount of heat that we will experience. We have to relook our power system; the solar panels that we have on board the spacecraft; the navigation mechanism.

“What’s actually happening is we’re orbiting around the sun in various elliptical orbits, flying by Venus and using…its gravity. We will also use Earth’s gravity…to be able to get towards the asteroid belt.”

Kicking off the mission

The team will start with the spacecraft.

“We go on to defining what the requirements are and what each part of this very complex system looks like. And then we start doing our initial designs and manufacturing of the initial products. Those are not flight-ready, of course.

“We’ll do the testing on those and then we start our final stretch, where we start receiving the flight-ready components. We’ll do the assembly, integration and testing. Each piece takes about one to two years,” Al Amiri explained.

The UAE is looking to boost the capabilities of its space industry. “There are several programmes that will come into play as we move forward, so that we can build a very robust space industry in the country,” said Al Amiri.

“We are also defining…which part of the mission has to do with supporting local businesses and developing their capabilities.”

The space sector involves multiple international collaborations, she said.

“You never develop a spacecraft 100 per cent in one place. Due to its complexity, there are several levels of components, technologies and expertise that go into the development of such missions,” she said.





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