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Bold new mission to asteroid belt will study Venus and seven unknown worlds

The UAE will flyby Venus enroute to the asteroid belt.

ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA, M. Pérez-Ayúcar & C. Wilson

Hot on the heels of the Hope Mars mission, the United Arab Emirates has announced it will begin building another interplanetary probe for launch in 2028, with the goal of visiting Venus and seven worlds in the asteroid belt over the next 12 years. 

The mission, announced Tuesday by the vice president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, will perform a flyby of the hellacious second planet from the sun in mid-2028, swinging around the planet on its way back past Earth and toward the asteroid belt. It will be built in the next seven years, and its journey will see it rack up more than 3.6 billion kilometers (more than 2.2 billion miles). 

“The UAE is determined to make a meaningful contribution to space exploration, scientific research and our understanding of the solar system,” tweeted Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, on Tuesday.

The aim of the mission will be to explore seven objects in the asteroid belt, a region of space between Mars and Jupiter stacked with millions of odd-shaped rocks that orbit the sun. Objects within the belt have been studied by space agencies, like NASA, in the past, but the UAE’s ambitious mission will aim to image seven asteroids — and then touch down on one to collect a sample. 

If it can achieve all that, the UAE would become the fourth country to touch down on the surface of an asteroid. It won’t be easy.

“This mission is in the order of five times more complex than EMM,” said Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri, the chair for the UAE Space Agency, in a press release.

As with the Hope mission, the UAE agency will work with Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The name of the mission will be announced at a later date.

Venus has become an increasingly popular target for space missions in the past year. NASA plans to launch two spacecraft to the planet, and both India’s space agency and the European Space Agency are preparing their own probes to explore it, too. 

While many of the Venus explorers have been discussed for years, there’s been plenty of hype about its potential habitability since a 2020 study discovered elevated levels of phosphine — a gas associated with life on Earth — in the cloud decks of the hothouse planet. Since publication, the findings have been disputed and the data reanalyzed, with a June 2021 study suggesting that the planet’s atmosphere is too dry to support microbial life.

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