United Arab Emirates and LASP announce new mission to explore the asteroid belt

Artist depiction of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Space Agency is embarking on a new space mission in collaboration with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. The mission will build on the success of the UAE’s ongoing Emirates Mars Mission to visit a much more ambitious target: the asteroid belt.

Like their comet and Kuiper Belt cousins, asteroids are small, rocky bodies that archive the gases and dust present during the early stages of the formation of our solar system. Although researchers have studied these minor planets using both Earth- and space-based telescopes, the asteroids’ small size and great distance from the Sun have limited our ability to understand their volatile materials and extraordinary supply of minerals. The international team plans to build and deploy a suite of state-of-the-art instruments to gather the data to reveal the histories of several asteroids—and to discover their future potential as space resources.

“The asteroid belt is an exciting research opportunity that encompasses LASP’s science, engineering, and mission operations capabilities all the while aligning with the UAE Space Agency’s aspirations to advance our understanding of our solar system,” says LASP Program Manager Pete Withnell. “This new mission will build on our successful knowledge partnership between engineers and scientists in both countries and offer many opportunities for developing new, cutting-edge technologies.” 

Transformative change

The new mission will build on the transformative change that has occurred within the United Arab Emirates’ space sector with a goal to make a meaningful contribution to space exploration. This has been catalyzed by the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), the first Arab mission to another planet, which resulted from a foundational collaborative partnership between the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre and LASP. This collaboration led to EMM’s successful launch, orbital insertion, and ongoing data collection.

“Partnering with the UAE Space Agency on this new mission will push the frontiers of scientific discovery while also enhancing scientific knowledge and advancing crucial engineering skills,” says LASP Director Dan Baker. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about our solar system’s early history while also helping to inspire a new generation of students studying science, technology, engineering, and math in both countries.”

An artistic rendering of the UAE spacecraft that will fly by Venus and land on an asteroid. Credit: UAE Space Agency

“The new mission we are mounting to explore the asteroid belt takes us to yet another level of complexity and capability development, and represents a quantum leap forward for the development of the Emirates’ space sector,” said Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister for Advanced Technology and chair of the UAE Space Agency. “It is also both a continuation and deepening of the collaboration between Emirati engineers and scientists and the University of Colorado, which has played a seminal role in our work to accelerate our space sector.”

The mission will comprise a significant element of private sector participation, with a range of initiatives being launched to encourage both emerging Emirati space startups and increasing specialization from existing companies involved in areas such as avionics and manufacturing to focus on the country’s developing space sector. “With this mission we are focused on leveraging our work together with CU and LASP to foster our private sector, using our academic partnership to translate into real world value creation and economic opportunity,” said Al Amiri. “We can already see huge synergies between the lively space community in Colorado and the emerging sector here in the Emirates.”

“The partnership between CU Boulder and MBRSC on the Emirates Mars Mission serves as a proven model of international collaboration in university-based research that transcends borders and cultures, fosters innovation, and generates long-lasting benefits on a global scale,” says Terri Fiez, CU Boulder Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. “This ambitious new mission with the UAE Space Agency will accelerate transformational discoveries with real-world impact.”

LASP is a world-renowned research institute at the University of Colorado Boulder that engages in the full cycle of space exploration, from conception to instrument and satellite design, mission operations, and scientific discovery. In addition to its involvement in numerous interplanetary missions, the Lab has played a leading role in developing small satellite technologies to address key scientific questions. LASP, which began a decade before NASA was founded, is the only academic research institute in the world to have sent instruments to all eight planets—and to Pluto.