The European Space Agency (ESA) awarded a $153 million (€129.4 million) contract to the Agency’s first mission for planetary defense called Hera. The project will be Europe’s contribution to an international asteroid deflection effort that will explore a double asteroid system.
"Hera – named after the Greek goddess of marriage – will be, along with NASA's Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft, humankind’s first probe to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system, a little understood class making up around 15% of all known asteroids," read ESA's press release.
The contract has been awarded to a team led by OHB System AG in Bremen. The DART spacecraft will launch in July 2021 to perform a kinetic impact on the smaller of the two bodies. Once that is completed, Hera will conduct a post-impact survey. The ultimate goal is to help researchers better understand asteroid compositions and structures.
Hera will also release Europe’s first CubeSats, miniature satellites, into deep space so that the satellites may survey asteroids close-up. It is estimated that Hera will launch in October 2024 and travel to a binary asteroid system called Didymos.
This asteroid consists of a 2,559 feet (780 m)-diameter main body that is orbited by a 525 feet (160 m) moon called Dimorphos. ESA estimates that DART’s kinetic impact into Dimorphos in September 2022 will change the moon's orbit around Didymos and produce a giant crater. Then, at the end of 2026, Hera will visit the Didymos system to perform at least six months of study.
All in all, 17 ESA Member States will be contributing to Hera. However, Germany will lead the way by undertaking the overall Hera spacecraft design and integration, main navigation cameras, tanks, thrusters, high-gain antenna, reaction wheels, and mass memory unit. Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Spain will also play key roles.