Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt’s Team From the UAE Space Agency Conducts Justitia’s Stellar Occultation Campaign

09 September 2023

The Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA)‘s team from the UAE Space Agency conducted a stellar occultation campaign for the mission’s final asteroid, Justitia. The campaign aimed to collect data to form a deeper understanding of Justitia’s size, orbit, and albedo by looking at the shadow of the asteroid as it passes in front of a star. This comes as part of the mission’s objective of successfully reaching its final asteroid, Justitia.

As the most advanced and ambitious scientific project, the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA) is the first mission of its kind to explore seven asteroids in the main belt. It consists of a six-year spacecraft design and development phase followed by launch and a seven-year mission to the main asteroid belt beyond Mars, performing a series of flybys with six main belt asteroids and finally rendezvousing with the asteroid Justitia.

Mohsen Al Awadhi, Mission Director of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA), said: “The campaign to observe Justitia as it passes in front of a star is a major step towards achieving the objectives of EMA. Having a deeper understanding of Justitia’s size, orbit, and albedo before launching the mission is essential to ensure its success, in addition to developing effective strategies to study it.”

Al Awadhi added: “We seek to expand the scientific horizons of national cadres and provide them with the necessary skills to lead the astronomical future of the UAE. This comes in line with the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, which extends over a period of 12 years between development, design, and the actual mission.”

The stellar occultation campaign was conducted by 60 volunteers which included EMA team members, University of Colorado students, Emirati students, and other occultation campaign volunteers. All volunteers had to take three trainings in order to prepare for the campaign, one during the daytime to learn how to set up the telescope, and two during the nighttime at round 2am-4am to learn how to collect data.

On the week of the campaign, based on the weather of the locations where Justitia’s shadow was going to pass over, the campaign’s base was selected to be Wheatland, Wyoming. Telescopes were packed for the trip from Colorado to Wyoming with teams of two people per station. The teams arrived to Wheatland a day before the occultation date in order to scout for sites where they would be setting up their telescopes and to conduct a final training on site at the same time that the real occultation was going to occur (4am) in order to ensure that everything was ready for the real event.

On the evening of the 30th of August, the team went out to their sites and set up their telescopes in order to observe the occultation of the target star by the asteroid Justitia. Across 34 stations, spaced by 2 km, the teams collected data of the light of the target star over time as the light went out when Justitia passed in front of it. The campaign occurred successfully and the data from each station is currently being combined to better determine the shape of Justitia.

This campaign included Emirati volunteer students currently studying the US, Amer Al Sawwafi, Sultan AlBlooshi, Hamdan AlMansoori, and Khalid AlNaqbi. The mission was determined to include as many Emirati students as possible in order to encourage them to participate in this vital sector and to develop their skills in astronomy and their understanding of the mission and its goals. The training is part of the UAE Space Agency’s initiatives to raise awareness on the importance of astronomical research and space exploration, and to encourage Emirati youth to participate in this vital sector. This supports its vision to develop the skills of Emirati cadres and empower them in the fields of space to ensure its sustainability.