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Self-Driving Spacecraft May Protect Planet Earth From Asteroid Collisions

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Self-driving cars are already roaming the roads, but a self-driving spacecraft is also set to take flight within the next several years.

Many deep space probes rely on ground controllers back on Earth to navigate their course.

Now, engineers are developing the technology that would allow spacecraft to navigate the cosmos on its own, according to an official report from ESA.

The mission, dubbed Hera just like the self-driving spacecraft, is part of an international endeavor that focuses on planetary defense against potential asteroid impacts.

"If you think self-driving cars are the future on Earth, then Hera is the pioneer of autonomy in deep space," explained Paolo Martino, lead systems engineer of the proposed Hera mission. "While the mission is designed to be fully operated manually from the ground, the new technology will be tested once the core mission objectives are achieved and higher risks can be taken."

First Self-Driving Spacecraft In Development

A variety of sensors will allow the autonomous spacecraft to build a model of its surroundings.

Jesus Gil Fernandez, ESA guidance, navigation, and control engineer, said that while the Asteroid Framing Camera is the most crucial source of data, the spacecraft will also be pulling data from the star-tracker, laser altimeter, thermal infrared camera, and inertial sensors such as accelerometers.

With these capabilities, the self-driving Hera spacecraft should be able to navigate as close as 656 feet or about 200 meters to asteroids, which is close enough to collect high-resolution data.

The Hera spacecraft is currently being designed by ESA engineers who will be presenting the proposed mission to Europe's space ministers in November 2019.

A Greater Mission For Planetary Defense Against Asteroids

Hera is part of the larger mission known as the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment or AIDA mission. It begins with a NASA spacecraft DART purposefully crashing into the smaller asteroid Didymoon of the binary asteroid pair Didymos.

About three years later, ESA's Hera spacecraft will arrive on Didymoon to analyze it and the crater left by the NASA spacecraft in great detail.

Since the engineers are crafting an autonomous vehicle that can get extremely close to the asteroid, the team will be able to gather important data. Some of the data expected to be collected are detailed measurements of Didymos, details on its orbit, and the consequences of the DART crash, among others.

The AIDA mission is shaping up to be the first time humanity will attempt to alter the dynamics of a cosmic object in a measurable manner.

Not only will the mission provide significant information about asteroid behavior in the wake of this type of crash, but it's also expected to provide valuable insight for planning future planetary defense strategies.

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