The United Arab Emirates has joined the roll-call of countries looking to go to the moon, with a lunar rover named Rashid scheduled to launch in 2024.
The announcement comes while the nation's first mission beyond Earth orbit, a Mars spacecraft called Hope, remains trekking bent the Mars . That mission may be a science-minded endeavor meant to review how Mars' climate and atmosphere work from orbit. The new lunar mission is of a special flavor, focused more on developing technologies and evaluating concerns before crewed and longer-duration exploration missions leave Earth and land on other worlds.
"There are many scientific objectives behind this mission that will help us to better understand the moon," Adnan AlRais of the UAE's Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) told Space.com, "but also in the long run to support our ultimate goal, sending humans to Mars and building settlements on Mars."
AlRais heads up the agency's Mars 2117 program, which was established in 2017 to focus on landing humans on Mars within a century. As a part of the program, the UAE is developing a "Mars Science City" within the desert and participating in practice Mars missions at analog facilities, among other activities.
Meanwhile, the nation's astronaut program is selecting two new spaceflyers to double its ranks. The UAE currently has two astronauts, one among whom spent every week on the International space platform in 2019, and recently sent them to NASA's Johnson Space Center for extra training.
And that's all happening while the UAE prepares for the Hope spacecraft's orbital arrival at Mars in February.
For an area program but 20 years old, the newly announced lunar mission marks a foray beyond the prevailing focus areas of Earth-observation satellites, human spaceflight and Mars exploration.
Why go to the moon?
The decision to focus on a lunar rover stems from the international recognition of the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, a close-by world to check technologies before committing to the monthslong voyage to the Mars .
"It makes sense to go to the moon," Hamad Al Marzooqi, project manager for the new lunar mission, told Space.com. "The moon is nearer to Earth than Mars and it will allow us to do high-frequency missions," although he declined to elaborate on what kind of future missions the agency is considering.
The team's current focus, he said, is on this first lunar rover, dubbed Rashid after the late Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the present sheik's father and one among the founders of the UAE, consistent with the Associated Press. The UAE has not yet selected the rocket which will launch the rover in 2024.
The team also still must select a landing site from among five finalists, Al Marzooqi said. Those candidate sites, all located within the equatorial region of the near side of the moon, are locations that haven't been visited by landed spacecraft, he added.
"We plan to go and explore new areas that have not been explored during previous missions and that will allow us to do interesting science," Al Marzooqi said.
The four-wheeled rover's task list may be a little bit of a smorgasbord, determined more by the landing site and therefore the instruments the team believes it can manage than by an overarching scientific narrative. Rashid will carry a high-resolution camera, a thermal imager and a microscopic imager to inform scientists about the dusty lunar regolith (moon dirt) and therefore the probe's surroundings.
It will also carry a Langmuir probe, an instrument which will study a very strange phenomenon on the moon. The solar radiation , a continuing stream of charged particles flowing off the sun, continually bombards the dayside lunar surface, since the moon has no atmosphere to prevent these particles. The result's a small charge to the dayside surface — and successively , a charged photoelectron sheath about 3 feet (1 meter) tall above it.
The phenomenon may contribute to the stickiness of lunar dust that so frustrated Apollo-era exploration, a possible concern already on the minds of these looking to return to the moon. Al Marzooqi said no Langmuir probe has ever reached the lunar surface and he hopes Rashid's will address this ongoing mystery.
The rover also will test experimental spacesuit materials to guage how they withstand the tough lunar environment. And although Rashid's primary mission will last only one day (about 14 Earth days), the rover will carry experimental software which will monitor instruments' temperatures and regulate their power, with the goal of waking them up again once the frigid lunar night ends, Al Marzooqi said.
To date, three nations have successfully soft-landed on the moon: the then-Soviet Union, the U.S. and China. Two countries attempted to hitch that list last year but failed: Both Israel's Beresheet lander and therefore the Vikram lander of India's Chandrayaan-2 mission experienced glitches during the landing process and didn't hamper enough to survive the impact.
Al Marzooqi said those missions were on the Rashid team's mind looking ahead to a 2024 landing attempt.
"I was disappointed to see those failed missions," he said. "When you see failed missions before your mission, you need to understand the risk better in order to make sure that we don't follow the same path."
But that risk is additionally the worth of admission, the UAE knows.
"There is no space mission with 100% success rate," Al Marzooqi said.