SCIENCE NEWS: NASA’s DART mission now has a sequel. How Europe’s HERA mission will investigate an asteroid impact aftermath.

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The Hera mission will arrive at Didymos two years after DART’s impact.
(Image credit: ESA)

The European Hera mission will follow NASA’s DART asteroid-deflecting spacecraft to the binary space rock Didymos and detail the aftermath of DART’s collision with the smaller of the two asteroids, Dimorphos. In a first scientific attempt, it will also try to peer inside the asteroid duo.

According to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) original plans, Hera would have witnessed DART‘s suicidal encounter with Didymos’ moon Dimorphos in 2022 firsthand. Funding delays were caused by initial hesitations among ESA member states. This is why the investigator spacecraft will not arrive on the scene for more than two years after the catastrophic impact. At that point, the “dust” will have settled and astronomers from Earth-based observations will know if DART succeeded in altering Dimorphos orbit around the larger Didymos.

What else will be there for Hera to learn? Surprisingly, quite a lot. Astronomers have very limited knowledge about Didymos or its moon Dimorphos. And the information Hera will gather will help researchers finetune a possible future mission that would aim to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Related: If an asteroid really threatened the Earth, what would a planetary defense mission look like?

“Hera is currently on track to launch in October, 2024,” Michael Kueppers, Hera project scientist at ESA, told Space.com. “It will arrive in late 2026 or early 2027. We originally wanted to see the impact directly. However, it is better to arrive later. We will be able see the final result, which could be of most importance from the point-of-view of planetary defense. “

Before it rams into Dimorphos, DART will photograph the two asteroids with its single instrument, the high-resolution DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation) camera. The spacecraft will release a cubesat ten days before it dies. This will take basic images of the immediate aftermath and stand in for Hera, who is delayed. Hera will follow the spacecraft with a suite of more sophisticated instruments that will allow it analyze the impact in detail, the structure of Didymoss and Dimorphos, and their chemical composition.

Rubble pile or solid block?

“Right now, we know quite well how the two asteroids orbit each other and how they together orbit the sun,” said Kueppers. “We know that the larger Didymos is about 800 meters [2,600 feet] across and the smaller Dimorphos about 170 meters [560 feet] across. We don’t have any information on their shapes, the mass of Dimorphos or their compositions. “

Astronomers think that the larger Didymos is not a single solid block of stone but rather what they call a “rubble pile,” a conglomeration of boulders and pebbles loosely held together by gravity. Dimorphos may also be affected by gravity. These unknowns will play a significant role in what happens after the impact. A rubble pile will react differently to impact than a block of solid rock. It might fall apart into many pieces that could then be separated and fly off on their own paths.

The strength and chemical composition of the material will determine how much of the energy delivered by DART the asteroid absorbs. Scientists don’t know how much material will be ejected from Dimorphos’ surface by DART impacts. This could affect the impact’s effect on the orbit of the asteroid.

“The more detail we learn, the better we will be able to scale up the mission to achieve a desired outcome if it was ever needed one day to protect Earth,” Kueppers said. We would have to be able to predict how such an impact will play out in real life. “

First look inside

Some of the most interesting measurements of the Hera mission might come not from the Hera spacecraft directly but from two cubesats that will travel to Didymos aboard Hera. Juventas will be carrying a new radar instrument that will allow it to analyze the interior of the asteroids. Kueppers said that if successful, it would be a scientific breakthrough.

“The cubesat carries a radar instrument that will send radio waves into the asteroids and measure the reflection,” said Kueppers. These waves will penetrate the asteroids, revealing the subsurface structure. “

The second cubesat, called APEX (for Asteroid Prospection Explorer) will measure the crater created by the DART impact using optical and infrared imagers.

Both cubesats will orbit the two space rocks at a closer distance than the mothership and will attempt to land on Dimorphos at the end of their missions.

Cratering

With the dust settled and Dimorphos recovered from the orbit-altering impact, Hera and its companions will have a much clearer view of the newly born crater than they would have in the direct aftermath of the collision.

Yet, the crater will be fresh. It will be much fresher than any other craters that have been studied by astronomers. Many of these craters were created in violent asteroid impacts many years ago.

“We have many craters on the moon and asteroids in the solar system,” Kueppers said. Kueppers said that this was a rare case in which we could investigate a crater and determine the exact properties of the impacting object. This will allow us to greatly advance our understanding of the physics and scaling of craters. It is valuable information for science and planetary defense. “

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. She is originally from Prague, Czech Republic. Her first seven years in her career were spent as a journalist, script-writer, and presenter on various television programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. Later, she took a break from her career to study further and completed a Master’s degree in Science at the International Space University in France. She also received a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Prague’s Charles University. She was a reporter for Engineering and Technology magazine. She also freelanced for several publications, including Space.com, Professional Engineering and Space News. She also served as a maternity editor at European Space Agency.

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