Scientists are figuring out if they can save Earth from a future potential catastrophic asteroid strike and are testing an autonomous spacecraft to carry out the mission. The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a planetary defense strategy that will incorporate navigation technology that is similar to what is found in self-driving cars.
“If you think self-driving cars are the future on Earth, then Hera is the pioneer of autonomy in deep space,” noted Paolo Martino, lead systems engineer of ESA’s proposed Hera mission. “While the mission is designed to be fully operated manually from ground, the new technology will be tested once the core mission objectives are achieved and higher risks can be taken.”
The spacecraft’s mission will be to survey a 525-foot satellite, nicknamed “Didymoon,” of the 2,550-foot-wide Didymos asteroid.
“The spacecraft will operate like an autonomous vehicle, fusing data from different sensors to build up a coherent model of its surroundings,” explained ESA guidance, navigation and control (GNC) engineer Jesus Gil Fernandez. “Hera’s most crucial data source will be its Asteroid Framing Camera, combined with inputs from a star-tracker, laser altimeter, thermal infrared camera plus inertial sensors including accelerometers.”
The mission won’t be entirely automated. It will largely be operated from a ground base, while the new system will be tested once most of the major objectives are complete, according to Fernandez.
The Hera program is part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, which will also include a spacecraft from NASA in the same asteroid system, reports space.com. NASA plans on crash landing a spacecraft on the asteroid and examining its surface. Hera’s mission is to observe the collision and then swoop down and study the impact crater. The aim is to carry out a planetary defense strategy known as asteroid deflection.