In the next decade, we will see two missions going to the same space object. In 2021, NASA will launch the DART spacecraft to crash into Didymoon, the "moon" of the asteroid Didymos, with the collision happening the following year. Then, in 2023, ESA will launch the Hera mission with the goal of collecting important information about the object in 2026 and analyzing the crater generated by the impact of DART. Now the European Space Agency gives more details on the mission, revealing that the spacecraft will have an autonomous navigation system in space, similar to the operation of autonomous vehicles that begin to venture through the streets of our planet.
"If you think that autonomous cars are the future on Earth, then Hera is the pioneer of autonomy in deep space," said Paolo Martino, chief systems engineer for the mission. "While the mission is designed to be fully operated manually from the ground, the new technology will be tested as soon as major goals are achieved and greater risks can be taken," he explains.
The Didymoon moon is only 160 meters in diameter, while the asteroid Didymos is 780 meters long, and the autonomy of the spacecraft should allow it to safely navigate about 200 meters from the surface of Didymoon, allowing for high-resolution observations of up to 2 cm pixel – focusing in particular on the impact crater left by DART, which will be made to alter the moon's orbit and thereby assess our ability to take any dangerous asteroids out of our path. If NASA succeeds, ESA will make that statement a few years later.
Didymoos takes just 12 hours to orbit Didymos, and if the DART mission can even divert the orbit of the moon around the asteroid, we will see how many days the moon completes an orbit to be altered, proving that it is possible to divert potentially dangerous asteroids to Earth in the future. In addition, the autonomous navigation technology that will be tested by ESA with Hera will have wider uses for future space missions, including the space maintenance vehicle the agency is designing to remove space debris from the planet's orbit, as well as ambitious mission Mars Sample Return, which would collect samples of the Martian soil and bring them back to Earth.
The idea is that, in the future, orbital probes capable of conducting the navigation itself through space and around the objects of interest allow a greater number of exploratory missions at a relatively low cost.