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Design work begins on asteroid lander mission

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Apr 6, 2015, 17:17 UTC

Sen—Preliminary design work has begun on the European Space Agency's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), scheduled for launch in October 2020, which will rendezvous with and study a binary asteroid.

The pairing of space rocks, called Didymos, consists of a main asteroid measuring about 800 m across, and a moon—nicknamed Didymoon—which measures about 170 m across.

AIM is part of a larger initiative with NASA called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the objective of which is to help us understand how we could defend Earth from an asteroid heading for impact.

Both AIM and NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe will arrive at the Didymos system in 2022.

AIM will create detailed maps of Didymoon's surface and interior structure. Then the spacecraft will attempt to land a probe on the tiny moon, a part of the mission from which the agency can draw upon its experience of landing the Philae probe on Comet 67P.

CubeSats will be also be released from the European spacecraft to gather scientific data in the vicinity of the moon.

While AIM orbits the asteroid moon, NASA's DART probe will impact Didymoon at about 6 km/s.

"AIM will be watching closely as DART hits Didymoon," said Ian Carnelli, managing the mission for the European Space Agency (ESA), in a statement. “In the aftermath, it will perform detailed before-and-after comparisons on the structure of the body itself, as well as its orbit, to characterise DART’s kinetic impact and its consequences."

Didymoon is small enough that the impact from DART could shift the tiny moon's orbit, marking the first time humanity has been able to alter measurably the dynamics of the Solar System.

Carnelli continued: "It will also give us a baseline for planning any future planetary defence strategies. We will gain insight into the kind of force needed to shift the orbit of any incoming asteroid, and better understand how the technique could be applied if a real threat were to occur."

Though relatively small, Didymoon is still thought to be three times larger than the object that impacted Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. An asteroid the size of Didymoon striking Earth would be capable of leaving a crater of at least 2.5 km across and causing serious regional and climate damage.

AIDA is one of several missions designed to increase our understanding of asteroids.

The Japanese space agency (JAXA) launched its Hayabusa 2 probe in Dec. 2014, Japan's second mission to an asteroid. Hayabusa 2 is due to rendevous with the one km-wide asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018. The mothership will release a cube-shaped probe to land on the asteroid's surface, as well as an impactor designed to blast a crater in the surface to enable fragments to be collected and returned to Earth for analysis.

Meanwhile, NASA's Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission hopes to reach asteroid Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

NASA recently provided further details of its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) where a spacecraft will grab a boulder from the surface of a larger asteroid and place it into a lunar orbit where it will be studied further.

Later this month, ESA’s ESRIN Earth observation centre, in Italy, will host the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference to discuss the risk of impacts from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and develop possible responses. A simulated asteroid threat exercise will be mounted to allow international space agencies and disaster response organisations to coordinate their reactions.