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CommunityGoing inside the Emirates lunar mission

The UAE is getting ready for a genuine moment in its history and journey of the UAE, and it will arrive in a flash of heat, light and noise. Floridian weather and launch conditions permitting, the incredible 1.7 million pound thrust of Falcon 9’s reusable rocket will power the first Emirates Lunar Mission on its four-month journey to the Moon. And when the Rashid Rover tentatively leaves its lander in March, making the first Emirati...
Ben EastNovember 29, 202213 min
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Emirates Lunar MissionShutterstock

The UAE is getting ready for a genuine moment in its history and journey of the UAE, and it will arrive in a flash of heat, light and noise.

Floridian weather and launch conditions permitting, the incredible 1.7 million pound thrust of Falcon 9’s reusable rocket will power the first Emirates Lunar Mission on its four-month journey to the Moon. And when the Rashid Rover tentatively leaves its lander in March, making the first Emirati imprint in the Moon exploration journey, the fun — and the discoveries — can truly begin. 

For something so small — the Rashid Rover is only 10kg and has a footprint of just 50cm2 — there’s a lot bound up in the Arab’s world’s first Moon mission; it’s fair to say this is in equal parts a scientific and symbolic exercise. 

Emirates Lunar Mission
A handout image provided by the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs shows UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (C) attending a presentation by members of the Emirates Lunar Mission in the capital Abu Dhabi on June 15, 2022. (Photo by Hamad AL-KAABI / Ministry of Presidential Affairs/ AFP PHOTO / UAE’S MINISTRY OF PRESIDENTIAL AFFAIRS

Yes, there have already been well-publicized adventures in space for the United Arab Emirates, with the Emirates Mars Mission successfully delivering the Hope Probe into the Red Planet’s orbit in 2021. It’s still there as we speak, sending back insights on Mars and its atmosphere. Hazza Al Mansouri, too, became the first Emirati astronaut when he journeyed to the International Space Station in 2019. But there’s something compelling about the story of a craft designed and built by Emirati engineers and scientists making its way to the Atlas Crater, located on an unexplored area of the Moon. 

So what are we hoping to learn from the Rashid Rover’s two weeks (that’s just one lunar day) on the Moon? Its main instruments give us a clue; there’s a main and secondary camera, thermal and microscopic imagers, a Langmuir Probe System to measure plasma and something called a Material Adhesion Determination Experiment.

Emirates Lunar Mission
Old post stamp of Ras Al Khaimah, dedicated to space exploration and first astronauts/Shutterstock

But the wider aim is undoubtedly to gather together as much knowledge about the challenges around the delivery of a craft to the surface of another planet. Whatever scientists and engineers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre gain from this undertaking will undeniably help them for their next mission, which could, of course, include landing on Mars rather than just orbiting around it. 

The misconception, for example, is that the Moon is cold. And it is — in a lunar night, temperatures can dip to -100°C. But during a lunar day, when the Rover will operate, it’s literally boiling hot and can get to 120°C. So though Emirati engineers and scientists are used to dealing with extreme temperatures, it’s these variations that they have had to consider in the Rover’s design and operation. Make the Rashid Rover work, and next time you simply scale the undertaking upwards.

Successfully delivering the Rashid Rover to the Atlas Crater, which is the job of Japanese company iSpace’s lander Hakuto-R, is just the first part of the puzzle. It’s a delicate (and remote) operation fraught with difficulty, and one of the reasons why MBRSC engineers have been developing a direct mode of communication with the Rover rather than relying entirely on the lander’s systems. Trying to connect with MBRSC 385,000km away, using an incredibly small, low-energy transmitter, has been one of the Space Centre’s biggest challenges, but the team’s experimental solution is another example of the commitment to innovation that this project has fostered. 

Emirates lunar mission
UMM AL-QUWAIN – CIRCA 1972: a stamp printed in the Umm al-Quwain shows Astronaut walks on the Surface of the Moon, Moon-landing, Apollo, circa 1972/Shutterstock

What might it send back? One of the main elements of the mission is to find out the exact properties of lunar dust. Known as regolith and comprised partly of silicon dioxide glass created by meteoroids hitting the moon, it is sharp, sticky and abrasive. It poses a real problem for any machinery or instruments on the Moon, and is a huge concern for the respiratory health of anyone exposed to it. 

In fact, when astronaut Gene Cernan returned to his lander during the Apollo 17 mission, which was staggeringly 50 years ago in December and the most recent time humans have set foot on the Mo, he was covered in it. He later said: “I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the moon. I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems, except dust.”

One of the ways the Rashid Rover will attempt to solve that problem is to attach different materials to its wheels – dubbed the Material Adhesion Determination Experiment — to see which performs better, thereby arming them with deeper understanding about everything from astronaut suits to lunar living modules. And related to this dust, the Rover will also study the lunar “photoelectron sheath”, which is a phenomenon also noticed by Apollo missions, where the horizon appeared to glow after sunset. 

Emirates Lunar Mission
FUJEIRAH – CIRCA 1970: a stamp printed in the Fujairah shows Emblem, Apollo 13, Mission to the Moon, circa 1970/Shutterstock

Attributed to the scattering of sunlight by dust particles, the lack of atmosphere means solar radiation and wind plasma makes these particles electrostatic. Again, this is a possible issue for more intensive and extensive operations on the Moon. 

There are other geological and thermal studies to be conducted by the Rashid Rover, and it’s important to recognize that as part of the NASA-led Artemis moon exploration program and accords that UAE have signed up to, the MBRSC will be transparent on their scientific findings. Also, they have not announced plans to extract resources for commercial gain. 

That, ultimately, is not what the Emirates Lunar Mission is about. It’s instead another example of how the UAE’s commitment to a knowledge economy is bearing fruit. It might be a journey into outer space, but the impact on the engineers, scientists, the technology sector and of course the stargazing young people of the UAE who look up and see the infinite possibilities of the universe are almost too great to quantify. 

More missions are in the works, too: a second rover, a succession of orbiters around the Moon and as Salem Al Marri, deputy director of MBRSC admitted recently, the possibility of working with some of the partners in the Artemis program to send an Emirati astronaut to walk its surface. 

That’s for the years to come. In a real sense, though, this Wednesday the UAE will have lift off.

Ben East

Ben East has been writing about books, culture, travel and wellbeing in the Middle East for 15 years. When he’s not reading, he’s busy finding exciting places to ride his bikes.

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