Science

Self-Flying Spacecraft To Help Protect Earth From Asteroids

Self-Flying Spacecraft
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Europe is planning a new asteroid mission expected to launch in 2023. The purpose is to explore the asteroids in our neighborhood and learn what can be done to protect Earth from a cataclysmic event. The mission will employ a “self-driving” (or technically, self-flying) spacecraft.

The mission is called “Hera,” and the name was inspired by the Greek goddess of marriage and wife of Zeus. The mission aims to visit the 2,550-foot-wide asteroid called 65803 Didymos and a tiny satellite called “Didymoon,” which measures 525 feet and orbits the asteroid.

This mission is different because it will use a self-flying spacecraft, which will employ part of the technology now often used in self-driving cars, unlike other spacecraft which fly deep into space while relying on controllers from Earth to send navigational commands. Instead, Hera will be equipped with an automatic navigation system. The advantage to this approach is that it will enable Hera to move in real time instead of waiting minutes for signals to come from Earth. Researchers refer to this mission as the future of space travel.

“If you think self-driving cars are the future on Earth, then Hera is the pioneer of autonomy in deep space,” Hera Lead Systems Engineer Paolo Martino said in a statement.

Space exploration in general will vastly benefit from this mission because using automatic navigation, the self-flying spacecraft will be able to approach both Didymos and Didymoon, taking high-resolution images of their surface, according to the statement.

The spacecraft is essentially the space equivalent of self-driving cars. It will use sensors, cameras and lasers to pick up data and “build up a coherent model of its surrounding,” ESA guidance, navigation and control engineer Jesus Gil Fernandez said.

However, researchers won’t completely rely on Hera’s autopilot system for the first mission. Part of the mission will still be operated from the ground. The team won’t rely on the new system until the main objectives are complete.

Hera is part of the larger Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, a collaborative project with NASA. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is designed to crash into the surface of the asteroid after delivering two small CubeSats to explore the composition of the asteroid’s surface.

Hera’s mission includes orbiting the asteroid and watching the collision between the DART spacecraft and the asteroid from a safe distance. It will then approach the asteroid to study the impact crater more closely. This mission plans to show how Earth’s planetary defense strategy, also known as asteroid deflection, might look.

The utmost goal of the self-flying spacecraft will be to determine whether Earth is capable of defending itself from a collision caused by a much larger and dangerous asteroid so that a cataclysm can be avoided.