CubeSats offer a way to get into space on the cheap. They're compact, inexpensive, and they can piggyback on larger launch payloads to get into orbit. The trouble is, this piggybacking is often like trying to hitchhike cross country on a ride that only goes to the edge of town. The European Space Agency (ESA) is widening the scope a little by opening a competition for CubeSats to ride into deep space on its Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM).
The ESA competition is open to scientists and companies of its member nations member and is intended to provide room for six CubeSat units. A particular CubeSat could be made up of two or three units, so the ESA mission might for example carry two CubeSats of three units each.
According to ESA, the competition isn't just for a launch spot, but also to seek new sensors and other technologies that can complement the AIM mission, which is part of the international Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which is tasked with investigating how to deflect asteroids that might pose a hazard to Earth.
For this, the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe will make a controlled impact on the smaller of the paired Didymos asteroids that form a binary system with one asteroid circling the other. The larger of the pair measures 800 m (2,600 ft) in diameter and DART will strike the smaller 170 m (550 ft) moon that orbits it. Meanwhile, AIM will stand off and record the before and after effects of the controlled impact.
Beyond that, AIM is also intended to act as a technology demonstrator for trying out new technologies, such as two-way high-bandwidth communications that use lasers to beam data to a ground station on Earth. It's hoped that the ride-along CubeSats will be able to help with the effort to test inter-satellite communications as well as the impact mission.