European Space Agency awards $153 million contract for its first planetary defense mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) is doing its part to help protect the Earth from any errant asteroids that may threaten terrestrial life, awarding a €129.4 million ($153 million) contract to an industry consortium led by German space company OHB. The contract covers the “detailed design, manufacturing and testing” of a mission codenamed ‘Hera,’ after the Greek goddess of marriage and the hearth, which will support NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission and help provide a path towards future planetary defense operations in space.

ESA’s Hera mission will launch a desk-sized satellite, which itself will contain small CubeSats, to perform a post-impact assessment of the effect NASA’s DART spacecraft has on as asteroid that it’s designed to essentially smash into at high velocity. Hera is intended to navigate around the asteroid autonomously while collecting data to help scientists back here on Earth understand whether their ambitious plan has been successful, in terms of using a human-made spacecraft to intentionally impact with an asteroid and change its trajectory through space. The CubeSats will inspect the asteroid close-up once deployed from Hera – including a potential interior probe with a radar array, the first of its kind for an asteroid body. All told, Hera and its CubeSate companions will be spending six months studying the asteroids following their encounter with DART.

NASA’s mission is set to launch sometime in July, 2021, and will arrive at the pair of asteroids – called the ‘Didymos’ pair – in September the following year. The ESA’s Hera mission is set to launch in October 2024, and then rendezvous with the asteroids in 2026, so there will be a considerable gap between the impact and Hera’s close-up study – time during which its effects should hopefully be apparent.

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