Back in February, ESA announced that a pair of CubeSats would fly aboard its Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which forms part of the larger Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) operation. Now, ESA has shortlisted five concepts missions for the flight, including projects that plan to study asteroid composition, measure the gravity field of the object, and much more.
If everything goes to plan, AIM will lift off in October 2020, and will, assuming it's successful, be part of the first-ever mission to rendezvous with a double asteroid. It's part of the larger AIDA endeavour, which will see AIM working together the NASA-supported Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.
The plan is for DART to impact the smaller of two asteroids –attempting to alter its course – while
AIM orbits the larger body, recording the event and measuring how
effective the deflection attempt is.
Assuming the mission receives final approval, it'll be carrying several smaller probes with it when it lifts off – namely a German Aerospace Center Mascot-2 Lander, and two triple-unit CubeSats.
There's a lot of competition when it comes to exactly what those two mini-satellites should be tasked with doing when they arrive at the asteroids, but ESA has narrowed things down significantly this week, selecting five proposals that it thinks would be a good fit for the mission.
First, the ASPECT mission plans to use a near-infrared spectrometer to study asteroid composition, as well as the effects of space weathering on the object. The project would also make observations of the plume created by DART's impact with the body.
The CUBATA proposal would require a pair of CubeSats, working together to measure the gravity field of the asteroid both before and after impact using Doppler tracking, as well as imaging the impact event close up.
Meanwhile, the AGEX mission would touch down on the surface of the foreign body to study its gravity, subsurface structure and the nature of surface material, while the DustCube venture would focus specifically on observing the plume of material ejected by the DART collision.
Lastly, the PALS mission – another dual-satellite proposal – would seek to characterize the magnetization and chemical composition of material ejected from the asteroid, while imaging it in high resolution.
Each of the proposed missions could provide valuable insights, but their selection at this stage doesn't mean they'll definitely get a spot on the final mission – in fact, far from it. The shortlisted CubeSat projects will now receive funding from ESA so that their viability can be studied in more detail. The AIM mission will only have two CubeSat berths, so competition is high.
Putting things into even greater context – the AIM mission itself hasn't yet been given the final go-ahead. It's currently in the detailed design stages, and won't receive a final green (or red) light until ESA's Ministerial Council makes its decision in December 2016.