Space engineers and asteroid experts from across Europe and beyond will gather at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin this week to discuss plans for ‘bonus’ science resulting from humankind’s first spacecraft to explore a binary asteroid system – ESA’s proposed Hera planetary defence mission.
Participants in a two-day workshop will discuss the science opportunities arising from this ambitious, innovative mission as well as potential additional experiments Hera could carry to perform in-space validation of technologies related to asteroid mining and resource utilisation.
Possible fly-bys of other near-Earth asteroids on the way to Didymos will be reviewed, and the workshop will share ideas on how to conclude the mission in the most scientifically valuable way – should the fuel-depleted Hera be landed on one or other of the asteroids, for instance, or impact into one of them?
Hera will build on the legacy of Europe’s Rosetta comet mission by flying to another small Solar System body, the Didymos pair of near-Earth asteroids, with launch forecast in November 2023.
A 160 m-diameter moon, informally called ‘Didymoon’ – about the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza – orbits the 780 m-diameter mountain-sized main body. The smaller moon is Hera’s main focus. By 2026, when Hera is expected to arrive, Didymoon will have achieved historic significance: it will be the first object in the Solar System to have its orbit measurably shifted by human effort.
A NASA mission called DART, for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, is planned to collide with Didymoon in October 2022, in a pioneering test of a planetary defence technique called ‘kinetic impact’, which attempts to alter a body’s orbit by exerting a force on it.
Arriving later, Hera will map the resulting crater as it surveys Didymoon’s surface, while also performing close-up measurement of the asteroid’s mass, building up a fuller picture of the collision and its aftermath.
Hera’s task are the critical measurements needed to complete the validation of this asteroid deflection technique and prove its value as an international planetary defence measure.
OHB System AG in Germany is currently performing a detailed study for the Hera mission, which will be be presented to Europe’s space ministers at ESA’s Space19+ Ministerial Council next year for a decision to fly the mission.