UAE mission to target unexplored parts of the moon

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It is an elite club of just three nations: the US, Russia and China – the only countries to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. Now, the United Arab Emirates is trying to join them, announcing an unmanned moon mission planned for 2024.

The UAE’s mission is designed as a stepping stone towards the exploration of Mars, which the Gulf nation is targeting with its Mars 2117 project. Earlier this year, the project took off with the launch of a probe – named Al Amal, or “Hope” – due to reach the red planet’s orbit in February 2021.

The new lunar mission involves a small rover, to be built entirely at Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC). Inaugurated in 2006, the center has already designed and built Earth-orbit satellites under an all-Emirati team, but the rover is its most ambitious technological undertaking to date.

“We have experience with orbiters, but this will be the first mission in which we are landing on another celestial body,” says Adnan Al Rais, who leads the Mars 2117 program at the MBRSC.

“We are working on the development of the science and technologies that will enable us one day to send humans to Mars,” explains Al Rais. “In order to do that, we looked into the gaps that we currently have in our knowledge; space robotics and robotic technologies are among those gaps, which we are addressing by developing a lunar rover.”

The Hope Probe scientists say the spacecraft has a mass of 1,350 kg -- about the size of an SUV.

The rover – named Rashid in honor of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai and father of the current sheik – is currently in the design phase. It will be built in 2022 and tested the following year, ahead of the 2024 mission launch.

With just four wheels and a weight of 10 kilograms (22 pounds), it’s much smaller than the latest rover to successfully land on the moon, China’s Yutu-2, which has six wheels and weighs 140 kg (310 lbs). It dwarfs in comparison to Curiosity, NASA’s only currently active Mars rover, which is as large as an SUV and weighs 899 kg (1,982 lbs).

China's Yutu-2 moon rover is currently exploring the lunar surface.

Lunar rovers aren’t especially common – there are more rovers on Mars than on the moon – but recent findings about the presence of water reserves and the prospect of establishing future mining operations have led to a new moon rush.

NASA is currently on track to send VIPER, a $250 million rover, to look for water ice around the satellite’s south pole in 2023, and plans to send “the first woman and the next man” to the moon by 2024 – returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

Several countries, including the UK, Russia and Japan, also have missions involving lunar rovers planned over the next few years, some of which are scheduled to land before the UAE’s 2024 mission.

An illustration of NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).

The planned rover will land in a previously unexplored area of the moon, close to the equator. “We will provide images from the surface for that particular area for the first time, and scientists from around the world will be able to study the data,” says Al Rais.

It will be equipped with two high-resolution cameras, as well as a microscopic camera to capture small details and a thermal imaging camera. The rover will also carry a Langmuir probe, designed to study the moon’s plasma, a layer of electrically charged gas that blankets its surface. It might help explain why moon dust is so sticky, a major nuisance during the Apollo missions and a potential problem for future ones.

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“We’re going to have these sensors on the surface of the moon for the first time. They were supposed to be on a previous lunar mission that unfortunately failed, because it didn’t manage to land,” says Al Rais, referring to India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission, which crash-landed on the moon in September 2019.

The orbiter vehicle of Chandrayaan-2 a few months before its launch.

Earlier the same year, in April, an Israeli spacecraft named Beresheet also crashed on the moon’s surface, showing how tricky a soft landing can be even with today’s technology.

“Landing is very critical. Space is always risky and looking at the statistics, more than 50% of missions that attempted a landing on the surface of the moon have failed,” says Al Rais.

The UAE does not plan to build its own lander, the part of the spacecraft that houses the rover while it touches down on the moon’s surface. Instead, it’s looking for partners to work with; “NASA and other space agencies are developing landers to send them to the surface of the moon, so we are currently exploring all those options,” explains Al Rais.

The choice of lander will likely also determine the choice of rocket and launch site, as the UAE does not have its own launch pad. In the recent past, it has launched its spacecraft from Russia and Japan.

The UAE Space Agency hopes that the data gathered from the mission will help in building a research station on the moon and answer questions related to the formation of the solar system.

“The mission will also cover a strategic objective: enhancing the research and development capabilities of the country, as well as encouraging a young generation to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education,” says Al Rais.

The UAE Space Agency sent an Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa Ali AlMansoori, to the International Space Station in 2019.

If everything goes to plan, a manned mission could be next. “We hope to one day have our Emirati astronauts on the surface of the moon,” Al Rais adds.

“Our ultimate goal is to send humans to Mars, and going to the moon will be the first step.”

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