In a collaborative project between ESA, the European Space Agency, and NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States, the latter will send an impacting spacecraft to the Didymos asteroid forming a small crater that will reveal its deeper layers.
The NASA spaecraft will then be followed by Hera spacecraft sent by ESA, bringing with it two nanosatellites the size of a shoebox. The satellites house instruments that measure the spectrum of light reflected from the asteroid surface to determine whether it holds any valuable minerals in short supply on Earth.
Tomas Kohout, an Academy of Finland research fellow at the University of Helsinki, is leading an international research group preparing the APEX (Asteroid Prospection Explorer) nanosatellite to be flown on ESA’s Hera mission.
At the moment, the researchers are developing instruments for the nanosatellites which can measure the spectrum of light reflected from an asteroid surface similarly to current spectrum measurements of meteorites carried out in laboratory conditions. Once the nanosatellites begin transmitting detailed images from the surface of the asteroid, the spectrum can be used to determine the composition of the surface. Other instruments on APEX will detect atoms and ions ejected from the asteroid surface by pace radiation, or evaluate metal content through magnetic field measurements.
Another goal of the Hera mission is to find out how a spacecraft colliding with an asteroid impacts its trajectory, thus potentially enabling the development of means to intercept asteroids coming into Earth's orbit.
Minerals found in space are available to anyone, and in the future they may be utilised. Kohout points out that, alongside technological development, discourse should be conducted on how and to what extent space minerals can be used in a sustainable manner without spoiling celestial bodies.
Academy of Finland research fellow Tomas Kohout, University of Helsinki, firstname.lastname@example.org, +358 504486268