Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

ESA today signed the 130 million contract to build the Hera spacecraft, which will work in conjunction with NASA's Dart to alter the orbit of Didymos moon Dimorphos. If an asteroid of that size were to fall on Earth it could destroy a city like Madrid

Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

The coronavirus pandemic is today the main threat to humanity. In less than a year, more than 900,000 people have been killed around the world and although the priority is to find treatments and a vaccine to combat it, the search for solutions to other potential threats has not stopped. One of them is the possibility that an asteroid of a certain size hits the Earth, as has happened on other occasions. And the European Space Agency (ESA) has signed this Wednesday in Germany the contract of 129.4 million euros for its first mission to learn how to deflect one of these rocks.

Her name is Hera (after the Greek goddess of marriage) and she will form a team with another NASA spacecraft, called DART, which will be in charge of giving a push to a near-Earth binary asteroid system, Didymos.

According to Michael Kueppers, scientist from the Hera mission, in a telephone conversation, this binary system does not pose a threat to our planet, but it will help us to carry out practices when a rock is detected that can impact our planet.

The main asteroid measures 780 meters in diameter and is orbited by a 160-meter moon that has just been named Dimorphos and whose size is similar to the Great Pyramid of Giza. As Michael Kueppers, who works at the European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC), compares, if an asteroid the size of the moon Dimorphos were to hit Earth it could destroy a city like Madrid . A larger rock, like Didymos, the main body, could wipe out a country.

Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

The American DART (Double Asteroid Redirect Test) spacecraft is scheduled to take off in July 2021 for this system. When it arrives, in 2022, the asteroids will be 10 million kilometers from Earth (at the point of their orbit furthest from us, they will be 500 million km). In September 2022, Dart will make a kinetic impact on the smaller rock that will open a crater of about 10 meters and modify its orbit. As Kueppers explains, a kinetic impact means that “the Dart ship will crash into the moon Dimorphos, as if it were a projectile, and will be destroyed after the impact. When it approaches it, it will travel at 6 kilometers per second,” Kueppers details. An Italian miniature satellite (cubesat ) will detach from Dart a few hours before impact to examine the area after the crash.

In 2024, Hera will take off and if all goes well she will arrive at the end of 2026 to closely monitor the evolution of asteroids, conducting a study of the environment after the impact to turn this large-scale experiment into an asteroid deflection technique that can be repeated. That is, to learn how to do it when an asteroid poses a real threat to Earth.

In parallel, the Hera spacecraft will deploy the first cubesats that Europa puts into orbit in deep space.

The role of Spain

Hera's approval came at the ESA Interministerial Council held in Seville last November, after a similar mission had been rejected three years earlier. The initial idea was that the European spacecraft would have taken off this year to be there when the Dart impact occurred, but due to the new calendar, its study will begin four years later.

The € 129.4 million contract has been awarded to a consortium led by the main contractor OHB System AG, in Bremen, and will be used to finance the design, manufacture and testing of the NAVE. Of the 17 ESA Member States contributing to Hera, Germany will lead the construction of the mission components, as it takes care of the overall design and integration of the Hera spacecraft, main navigation cameras, tanks, thrusters, the high gain antenna, the reaction wheels and the mass memory unit.

Europe launches its first mission to learn how to deflect dangerous asteroids

Spanish companies will have approximately 6% of those almost 130 million available to develop the advanced guidance, navigation and control system of the spacecraft, as well as the communication system in deep space. On the other hand, it will supply the gravimetric instrument of the cubesat Juventas satellite.

The spacecraft will carry a series of instruments to test novel technologies, such as autonomous navigation around the asteroid – comparable to driverless cars on Earth – and will collect scientific information that will allow a better understanding of what asteroids are made of for future missions .

That is the other major objective of the mission, to investigate the rocks to be able to extrapolate the results to another mission: “We not only want to divert the asteroid, but to characterize it and understand how the characteristics of the rock, its porosity, etc., influence the impact “.

If an asteroid that can hit the Earth were detected, building a spacecraft to try to deflect it would take between five and 10 years, so the researcher believes that one possibility would be to manufacture a spacecraft that could be ready to be launched within a few years. in less time.

It is estimated that there are around 30,000 near-Earth asteroids between 100 and 300 meters in size, of which 82% of them have not yet been detected.

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