The United Arab Emirates has joined the roll-call of nations looking to visit 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, is still trekking out to the Red Planet. That mission is a science-minded endeavor meant to study how Mars’ climate and atmosphere work from orbit. The new lunar mission is of a different 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 target landing humans on Mars within a century. As part of the program, the UAE is developing a “Mars Science City” in the desert and taking part in practice Red Planet 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 of whom spent a week on the International Space Station in 2019, and recently sent them to NASA’s Johnson Space Center for additional training.
And that’s all going on while the UAE prepares for the Hope spacecraft’s orbital arrival at Mars in February.
For a space program less than two decades old, the newly announced lunar mission marks a foray beyond the existing focus areas of Earth-observation satellites, human spaceflight and Mars exploration.
Why go to the moon?
The decision to target a lunar rover stems from the international recognition of the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, a nearby world to test technologies before committing to the monthslong voyage to the Red Planet.
“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 sort of future missions the agency is considering.
The team’s current focus, he said, is on this initial lunar rover, dubbed Rashid after the late Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the current sheik’s father and one of the founders of the UAE, according to the Associated Press. The UAE has not yet selected the rocket that will launch the rover in 2024.
The team also still needs to select a landing site from among five finalists, Al Marzooqi said. Those candidate sites, all located in the equatorial region of the near side of the moon, are locations that have never 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 is a bit of a smorgasbord, determined more by the landing site and 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 tell scientists about the dusty lunar regolith (moon dirt) and the probe’s surroundings.
It will also carry a Langmuir probe, an instrument that will study a particularly strange phenomenon on the moon. The solar wind, a constant stream of charged particles flowing off the sun, continually bombards the dayside lunar surface, since the moon has no atmosphere to stop these particles. The result is a slight positive charge to the dayside surface — and in turn, a negatively 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 potential concern already on the minds of those 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 will also test experimental spacesuit materials to evaluate how they withstand the harsh lunar environment. And although Rashid’s primary mission will last just one lunar day (about 14 Earth days), the rover will carry experimental software that 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 join that list last year but failed: Both Israel’s Beresheet lander and the Vikram lander of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission experienced glitches during the landing process and didn’t slow down 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 also the price of admission, the UAE knows.
“There is no space mission with 100% success rate,” Al Marzooqi said.