The Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Artist rendering of the MBR Explorer spacecraft. Image: UAE Space Agency

The UAE unveiled plans on Sunday to send a spacecraft to explore the asteroid belt by 2028, a follow-on to the emerging space nation’s ambitious Mars mission currently orbiting the Red Planet. 

The Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, or EMA, will study six asteroids before reaching its final destination: a mysterious red asteroid that may hold clues about the genesis of life on Earth.

A rare item: Discovered in 2021, the 30-mile wide asteroid “269 Justitia” is one of two known red asteroids. Its distinct color is attributed to the presence of organic compounds called tholins, more common to the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt, suggesting its potential origin.

The two-ton spacecraft, named “MBR Explorer” after UAE’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, will be constructed over the next six years. The first asteroid flyby is expected in 2030, followed by five subsequent flybys before reaching Justitia in 2034. 

Buy local: The mission has the dual goals of scientific discovery and boosting the commercial space sector much closer to home. Half of the mission’s budget will be spent within the UAE, and a small lander to be deployed to Justitia’s surface from the MBR Explorer will be fully developed by UAE-based startups.

International organizations are also working on the mission, including:

  • The Italian Space Agency, which is developing an imaging spectrometer in collaboration with the National Institute of Astrophysics and Leonardo S.p.A.
  • US-based Malin Space Science Systems is adding two cameras to the spacecraft.
  • The University of Colorado Boulder is serving as a knowledge partner to the mission. The university was also a partner on UAE’s “Hope” Martian orbiter that launched in 2020.