A United Arab Emirates spacecraft heads to Mars on a Japanese rocket this Tuesday — taking advantage of a launch window that opens every two years, when the relative positions of Mars and Earth facilitate travel between them. Two other Mars missions — one American, one Chinese — will use the same window later this summer.
The UAE mission is part of a broader endeavour to develop a high-tech economy. “This is the Arab world’s version of president John F. Kennedy’s moon shot — a galvanizing vision for the future that can engage and excite a new generation of Emirati and Arab youth,” explained Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the United States.
The spacecraft, called “Hope,” faces a 9-month, 60-million-kilometre journey. It will then enter a stable Mars orbit, from which it will collect data on climate dynamics and weather; data that the UAE will share internationally.
The UAE Space Agency was founded six years ago and has already spent US$6 billion. The first UAE-built Earth observation satellite was launched in 2018. The first UAE astronaut travelled to the International Space Station in 2019 on a Russian rocket.
Recognizing that space launches are a service that can be contracted, just like a moving van or a cargo ship, the UAE has spent its money on spacecraft and a new generation of scientists and engineers.
The UAE is but one of several new space actors engaged in science missions. Last year, a lander designed by an Israeli non-profit — and funded by an Israeli philanthropist — became the first private spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon.
Here in Canada, the Canadian Space Agency has also been focused on the Moon, ever since President Donald Trump redirected NASA from Mars to the Moon and tasked it with returning U.S. astronauts there by 2024 — the final year of his hoped-for second term.
The CSA’s focus makes sense, because of Canada’s proven ability to contribute robotics to NASA missions, and the astronaut slots and industrial benefits that flow from this.
But the Moon and Mars should not be the only space objects of interest. Asteroids offer incredible scientific potential, while also posing a threat in the form of low-probability, high-consequence impacts. The 2013 Chelyabinsk event — an air-blast that sent 1500 Russians to hospitals with injuries from shattered window glass — is a recent reminder of the risks.
It’s time for Canada, like the UAE, to have a deep space mission entirely of its own — in the form of a Canadian-made robotic spacecraft to support space exploration, planetary science and planetary defence from asteroids.
Canadian companies — such as Richmond-based MDA — are capable of designing and building a small spacecraft that could rendezvous with near-Earth asteroids and install equipment to enable precise tracking. This would allow long-term, detailed monitoring of asteroids, dramatically improving our understanding of their orbital evolution. Seismographs could also be installed, to provide information on the internal structure and surface activity of the asteroids as well as the frequency of meteoroids impacting them.
Such a spacecraft could also be launched quickly — or redirected if already in space — to rendezvous with and characterize an asteroid as soon as it is discovered to be on an Earth impact trajectory. The resulting information would greatly increase the chances of a successful deflection mission with a larger purpose-built spacecraft.
On April 13, 2029, a 340 metre-diameter asteroid named Apophis will pass within 40,000 kilometres of the Earth — closer than communications satellites in geostationary orbit. We know about Apophis, and that it poses no impact risk in 2029, because of intensive ground-based observational efforts. But there are a million other near-Earth asteroids that could obliterate a city or far worse, and our scientific knowledge of them remains woefully incomplete.
U.S. billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos build rockets. Perhaps some wealthy Canadian would like to save the planet?