Tiny space probe could reveal consequences of our first asteroid defense test

Tiny space probe could reveal consequences of our first asteroid defense test

Are miniature probes the future of deep space exploration? It’s starting to look like this. While school bus-sized flagship missions still circle our solar system from Mars to Jupiter, they are increasingly accompanied by tiny CubeSats with specialized capabilities.

This trend is set to continue in 2024 when the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Juventas CubeSat flies to asteroid Dimorphos, the site of September’s dramatic impact where NASA’s DART mission deliberately crashed a spacecraft. high-speed spacecraft to test the viability of asteroid redirection by humans. The Juventas CubeSat is equipped with a radar instrument – the smallest ever sent into space – to probe under the surface of the asteroid and understand its structure following the impact.

Juventas is one of three ESA probes that will fly together towards Dimorphos. A second CubeSat, Milani, is designed to study the composition of the asteroid’s surface and dust. Meanwhile, a larger probe, named Hera, will complete the trio with a fuller suite of instruments. Together they will offer a comprehensive study of Dimorphos – its internal and surface characteristics, its mass and, most importantly, the size and characteristics of the crater left behind by NASA’s DART mission.

Exciting results

DART view of the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos 11 seconds before impact.NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

ESA’s trio of spacecraft aren’t expected to reach Dimorphos until 2026, but ground and telescope observations of the asteroid already suggest the DART mission has far exceeded expectations. Dimorphos is a “moon” orbiting a larger asteroid named Didymos, and before impact each orbit took 11 hours and 55 minutes. NASA scientists hoped to demonstrate a change in orbital period of at least 73 seconds to consider the mission a success. This mark has been greatly exceeded, shortening Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes.

When it comes to planetary defense, even a small change in an asteroid’s trajectory can prevent a catastrophic impact, provided it is made early enough. The results of the DART mission are therefore exciting. While Dimorphos is only a very small asteroid (170 meters in diameter) and larger objects will be more difficult to deflect, DART’s ability to significantly alter Dimorphos’ orbit offers a reassuring proof of concept. If the Universe should send a dangerous object our way, the Earth will be ready, provided that we see it arrive in time.

It can be comforting to know that most large asteroids in the solar system are tracked by space agencies around the world, so the risk of a surprise asteroid impact is low. In fact, the most likely threat may not come from asteroids but from comets, which spend most of their time in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, making them nearly impossible to track and predict.

Fortunately, we know a lot about cometary structures thanks to missions such as the Rosetta probe which visited comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

The tiny Juventas CubeSat radar instrument sent to Dimorphos will be a miniaturized version of the one Rosetta carried on Comet 67P.

When Juventas, Milani and Hera arrive at Dimorphos in 2026, they will close in on him, offering detailed information on the asteroid’s composition. Solid asteroids can deflect differently than asteroids made up of small gravel and boulders, so learning as much as possible about the object’s composition can only improve our understanding of the physics involved in redirect missions, should it ever become necessary. And CubeSats like Juventas are powerful tools for this type of investigative mission.

It’s time to shine for mini instruments

JAXA’s Minerva-II rovers landed on asteroid Ryugu in 2018.JAXA

In the future, CubeSats and miniaturized instruments will likely become more ubiquitous in deep space missions. Although these compact space probes are less comprehensive than their larger counterparts, they offer specialized capabilities at relatively low cost, making them an ideal complement to larger missions. Since CubeSats first flew into deep space in 2018 (the sister MarCO spacecraft that accompanied InSight on its way to Mars), dozens of other mini-probes have been planned and built.

Some have already proven themselves. JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu, for example, landed three tiny rovers (the twin Minerva-II rovers and the German-built MASCOT rover) on the asteroid’s surface in late 2018, and a camera deployable was released from the spacecraft to observe an impact event (when Hayabusa 2 “pulled” the asteroid to expose subsurface for sampling).

The next Europa Clipper is also expected to carry CubeSats, as is the impending Artemis 1 mission to the Moon. The CAPSTONE CubeSat is already in lunar orbit right now, testing the capabilities that will be needed for the Artemis Gateway space station. Across the solar system, CubeSats are making waves. They say big things come in small packages, and when it comes to space exploration, that may still be truer than we imagined.

This article was originally published on Universe today by Scott Alan Johnston. Read the original article here.

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