The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun making plans for the development of a spacecraft that will encounter and chart a distant asteroid, and witness that asteroid being struck by another spacecraft.

Known now as the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) Spacecraft, the probe is tentatively scheduled to arrive at the Didymos double asteroid in 2022.

It is actually four spacecraft in one. The main craft will carry a small lander, which will land on the 180-meter secondary asteroid, known as ‘Didymoon’; and there will be at least two CubeSats, which will assist AIM to test deep-space intersatellite relays while the lander gathers experience in low-gravity proximity operations near the asteroid.

In addition, AIM will witness NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft smash at high speed into Didymoon. The four crafts will then offer multiple viewpoints of the crash and its aftermath.

The mission will also gather data to help develop planetary defense strategies against an asteroid slamming into Earth.

The preliminary design phase of the Asteroid Impact Mission started in February. Two separate industrial consortia have begun work on the design concepts for the mission’s satellite platform, payload accommodations and operations systems.

A concept will then be selected in 2016 and submitted to ESA’s Council of Ministers for approval.

If approved, the mission concept will then become an actual ESA mission. It will also be part of a set of technology demonstrations, including deep-space laser communications, for future missions.

The Asteroid Impact Mission will be ESA’s first mission to a small body since Rosetta and will cost less than Rosetta.

AIM will be less costly than Rosetta because it will be much shorter-lived. The Rosetta mission lasted for a decade. In addition, the AIM spacecraft will be physically smaller than Rosetta. The AIM spacecraft will weigh 800 kg at launch and will be the size of a large office desk. It will take only a year to make the journey to the asteroid system of Didymos and its moon.

The AIM and DART missions will combine into the joint Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the world’s first attempt to demonstrate that international space agencies working together can protect the Earth from an asteroid impact.


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