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Cubesats compete to hitch a lift to a binary asteroid

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Mar 15, 2015, 15:47 UTC

Sen—The European Space Agency (ESA) is offering researchers and companies the chance to let small satellites known as CubeSats hitch a ride to a pair of asteroids in deep space. The selected CubeSats will become Europe’s first to travel beyond Earth orbit. 

The initiative is part of ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), scheduled to launch in October 2020. It will be the first mission to a binary asteroid system, the Didymos asteroids, which be 11 million km from Earth at the time of the spacecraft's arrival in 2022.

The main asteroid, which has an 800 metre (half mile) diameter, is orbited by a small moon. AIM will perform high-resolution visual, thermal and radar mapping of the moon. It will also attempt to put down a lander—ESA’s first touchdown on a small body since Rosetta’s Philae landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in November 2014. 

As well as improving our understanding of the binary asteroid system, AIM hopes to demonstrate deep-space optical communication technology and create an inter-satellite communication network between the CubeSats and the lander.

Each CubeSat measures 10 cm (4 in) cubed, but can be joined together to form two-unit or even three-unit satellites. “AIM has room for a total of six CubeSat units,” explains Ian Carnelli, managing the mission for ESA. “So potentially that might mean six different one-unit CubeSats could fly, but in practice it might turn out that two three-unit CubeSats will be needed to produce meaningful scientific return."

“We also intend to use these CubeSats, together with AIM itself and its asteroid lander, to test out intersatellite communications networking."

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AIDA mission concept. Image credit: ESA 

AIM is ESA’s contribution to a larger international effort, the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, which includes NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. The space agencies hope the mission will help develop strategies to deal with asteroids that could threaten Earth.

NASA's DART probe is being designed to hit the smaller member of the binary asteroid system, in order to change its orbital period. AIM and DART will then work together, imaging the resulting crater and monitoring the dust environment before and after the impact.

AIM will perform detailed before and after mapping, gathering data on the possible alteration of physical characteristics of the asteroid due to the impact, including pinpointing any shift in the asteroid’s orbit. 

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A single unit CubeSat. Image credit: Rasmus G. Sæderup AAUSAT Team (University of Aalborg, Denmark)

“While it will return invaluable science,” adds Ian, “AIM is conceived as a technology demonstration mission, testing out various technologies and techniques needed for deep space expeditions in future."

Teams from any ESA Member State are free to compete. Qualified teams can submit initial ‘challenge responses’ describing their proposed mission concepts. The winning submissions will then be funded by ESA for further study over the next seven months and the winners will work with ESA to elaborate their designs.

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) study examines ways to deflect asteroids from trajectories that could lead to them impacting Earth. Credit: JHU Applied Physics Laboratory