European Space Agency‘s (ESA) Hera spacecraft has been assembled in preparation for its journey to analyze the asteroid impacted by NASA‘s DART mission. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test struck Dimorphos, the smaller companion of the asteroid Didymos, in September 2022. The impact created debris and, most importantly, altered the orbit of the space rock.
Assembly of Hera
ESA is now gearing up for its contribution to the international planetary defense experiment DART. The two modules of the Hera spacecraft were recently coupled at the facilities of the technology company OHB in Bremen, Germany, in a three-hour process.
“Before, we had these two modules, now you can say the spacecraft is born” explains Paolo Martino (rif.), a Hera systems engineer. “Next, we will add some payload units to the upper deck of the spacecraft. We will receive them directly from the manufacturers once Hera moves to the next stop” Martino said.
Hera will be transported to ESA’s ESTEC test center in the Netherlands, where it will undergo environmental testing as part of flight readiness checks. The spacecraft is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in October 2024 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Hera will reach Dimorphos at the end of 2026, four years after DART collided with the asteroid.
ESA ‘s Hera spacecraft was supposed to witness and assess DART’s impact in real time. However, the program has been plagued by numerous delays. The cubesat LICIACube, on the other hand, stepped in with short notice to provide the first post-impact observations.
Hera will use a lidar sensor, an optical camera, and a thermal camera to study the asteroid system’s composition. In addition to Hera, a pair of cubesats named Juventas and Milani will be added. The first will carry a small radar to provide a glimpse inside Dimorphos, while Milani will conduct observations in the near-infrared of the surfaces of the two rocks.
As Hera has finally come together, space observations have shown the extent to which Dimorphos has disintegrated after NASA’s high-speed intervention. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, reveal that the kinetic impact unleashed a chaotic cloud of rocks.