Piggybacking on interplanetary missions

Universities’ role in space exploration can increase if their equipment hitches a ride on large interplanetary missions, said Prof. Vermeersen in his inaugural speech on June 12.

According to Bert Vermeersen the future holds many missions in which a mothership deploys mini probes, be it miniature satellites or landers. "This new trend will bring space exploration to regions beyond the moon within reach for universities", he said during his inaugural speech as a professor of the AE and CEG faculties.

The professor described a future in which instruments from universities hitch rides to space. He already works on one such project. Vermeersen has high hopes that his group will get involved in the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, led by ESA. Its goal is to test whether a spacecraft could successfully deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth by crashing into it.

The first part of AIDA consists of only studying an asteroid, or actually two asteroids; the target 65803 Didymos is a binary asteroid system in which one asteroid is orbited by a smaller one. Later NASA will launch a spacecraft that will push the small asteroid out of its orbit.

ESA plans to launch its spacecraft in 2020. It has room for six cubesat units that will be deployed once the craft reaches its destination. And it has a tender to which universities can apply.

"The instrument we would like to send along is a spectropolarimeter. It measures the reflection of the sunlight on the surface of the asteroid and from that it deduces what material it is made out of and its roughness."

Competition for this tender is tough. But whatever the outcome, Vermeersen expects many more such opportunities to a rise. "Space agencies have acquired a taste for missions with miniprobes, as they allow them to take extra risks."