Space, Dart mission with Italian microsatellite to deflect asteroid

First planetary defense mission 11 million kilometers from Earth, our probe will be like a space ‘reporter’: it will take photos of the impact and reveal new mysteries about asteroids

A potential danger to our planet, il risk of a fatal impact to the Earth with an object coming from the Universe like the one that spelled the end of the dinosaurs. It took off successfully and with the aim of avoiding such an epilogue L
a first space mission that will experience the deviation of an asteroid. NASA’s Dart mission left with a Space X Falcon 9 at 7.23 am Italian time from the Californian base of Vandenberg with the Italian LiciaCube microsatellite on board, acronym of Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a technological jewel made in Italy measuring only 30x20x10cm and about 13 kilograms. The microsatellite is an ASI project carried out entirely in the factories of the Italian company Argotec in Turin and is the first satellite built in our country to undertake a journey into deep space.

The objective of NASA’s Dart-Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission is to divert the course of the moon Dimorphos 170 meters large c
he lives around the asteroid Didymos. The system orbits the Sun and the Dart mission aims to experiment with how to move its path to one day avert an impact that is more tragic for the Earth. The journey of Dart and LiciaCube – who will film the impact and document each step – will last about 10 months e the rendezvous with the asteroid will take place 11 million kilometers from Earth. “Today we record continuous impacts with very small objects with our planet and this mission will allow us to experiment if we will be able to change the course of a potentially dangerous asteroid. The small cubesat LiciaCube of the Italian Space Agency will have a highly challenging task in this mission. of a unique planetary defense that will pave the way for many other missions and it is no coincidence that this assignment has been entrusted to Italy – the only international partner of the mission – confirming the solidity of bilateral relations between NASA and ASI and of reliability of the national industry and of the scientific team made up of Italian research institutions and universities “he explained the president of the Italian Space Agency, Gioirgio Saccoccia, during the event organized at the ASI headquarters to follow the launch of Dart and LiciaCube live. Godmother and moderator of the meeting was the host Licia Colò who spoke on the ASI stage with the Italian astronaut of the European Space Agency Luca Parmitano, the CEO of Argotec, David Avino, the astrophysicist Barbara Negri, head of the Human Flight Unit and Scientific Experimentation of the Italian Space Agency, and the famous ‘space’ designer Leo Ortolani.

To reach the asteroids Didymos and Dimorphos whose course will have to be diverted, explained Negri, “behind there is a whole computation of orbital dynamics, a complex computation of trajectories”. And the action of hitting Dimorphos, the ASI astrophysics noted, “is another strategic chapter of this mission that wants to thwart a threat from heaven”. David Avino, CEO of Argotec, observed that “after about two years of work, this morning it was really impressive to be able to witness the start of the LiciaCube microsatellite completely designed and built within our Turin plants”. “Argotec’s satellite platform is among the most technologically advanced in the world, able to operate in deep space ensuring high performance despite its small size. We are really proud – Avino said – to be on board such an ambitious NASA mission of future usefulness for planetary defense. The next appointment is set for autumn 2022 when, from our Argotec control center in Turin, we will support the satellite’s activities in real time: from the release from the American probe to the acquisition of high-resolution images of the Dart impact. “.

The mission’s goal is to reach it in the fall of next year, the binary system composed of the asteroid Didymos and its satellite Dimorphos and make the American probe Dart impact at high speed against the latter while LiciaCube, remaining at a safe distance, will have the task of photographing and acquiring the impact data for check if the asteroid will deviate its trajectory. Dart will therefore be the first test, in full scale, of the kinetic impact technique for the purpose of Planetary Defense for the protection of the Earth, if in the future there are dangerous situations caused by celestial objects that intersect the Earth’s orbit. Neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, but their orbit around the Sun makes them transit fairly close to our planet to allow the telescopes to observe the consequences of the Dart collision and calculate how effective the mission will have been in modifying Dimorphos’ trajectory following the impact. The variation of the period of revolution of the latter around its more massive rocky companion will be measured in the phases immediately following the impact and then cumulatively for the following months and years. In addition to what was detected from Earth, the images acquired by LiciaCube will provide unique elements acquired in situ and in the moments just after the impact, also relevant for the measurement of orbital deflection. LiciaCube’s all-Italian scientific team includes researchers of the National Institute of Astrophysics (Inaf), of the Polytechnic of Milan, of the Universities of Bologna and Parthenope of Naples, of the Ifac-Cnr of Florence, and is coordinated by Elisabetta Dotto (Inaf). In recent months, INAF has coordinated with the Galileo National Telescope (Tng) a campaign of spectroscopic observations of the asteroid Didymos that covers the entire rotation of the object.

Dart will be able to verify the possibility of modifying the orbit of the smallest asteroid of the double Didymos system through the impact of the American probe, at the speed of about 21,000 kilometers per hour, about 11 million kilometers from Earth. LiciaCube, after a journey of about 11 months aboard Dart, will separate from the NASA probe a few days
before impact to become a ‘photojournalist’ in space and acquire high resolution images of the crater and the debris generated by the collision, to allow a complete assessment of the impact effects. All the data produced in this phase of the mission will be fundamental to verify the effectiveness of the ability to change the orbit of asteroids using this technique. Furthermore, the Italian scientific teams coordinated by the National Institute of Astrophysics (Inaf) and coordinated Americans from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (Apl) will use the data acquired by Dart and LiciaCube for investigations on the nature and composition of the asteroid and to determine with greater accuracy the effects that the impact of Dart had. LiciaCube will also have the opportunity to acquire images of the non-impacted hemisphere, to study the surface of the asteroid.

LiciaCube is based on Argotec’s Hawk 6 platform, it is a 30x20x10 cm microsatellite

, in jargon a 6U, and is equipped with a very powerful optics and artificial intelligence software designed and developed in the Italian laboratories of Argotec, will be able to carry out the recognition of celestial objects in the field of view of the camera, to autonomously carry out orbital maneuvers and to capture images and scientific data that will be indispensable in the validation of this technique for the defense of the Earth from potential external threats such as asteroids, explained Argotec’s LiciaCube team in connection with Asi from Turin. A “team all made up of very young people” as Argotec CEO David Avino pointed out, during the live link from the ASI headquarters.