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The brain of the Hera planetary defence mission, tested with equipment made in Romania

on 22 September 2022

What will happen to humanity if an asteroid hits Earth again? Will we suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs or will we be able to avoid disaster? This year sees the first international effort to deflect an asteroid's trajectory, and Romania is one of the countries contributing to the European component of this mission.

65803 Didymos is an asteroid classified as potentially hazardous, consisting of the main asteroid and its satellite, called Dimorphos. 65803 Didymos is the target of the international AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment) mission, with its two components: the American DART component that will impact the asteroid's satellite on 26 September 2022, and the European Hera component that will observe whether or not we have successfully deflected the asteroid.

Romania will provide some key elements in the success of the European mission. The Romanian expertise will help Hera to reach the asteroid and measure its deflection very precisely following the impact with DART. It will also support one of ESA's first two deepspace cubesats to approach the asteroid.

You can read here about the "eyes" of the Hera mission without which it could not be properly guided and manoeuvred, developed with the involvement of GMV Romania.

Read here about measuring the asteroid's deflection using an altimeter to which the National Research and Development Institute for Optoelectronics - INOE 2000 from Romania contributed.

This article will focus on the brain of the Hera mission, whose functioning will be tested with equipment made in Romania by ATOS Romania.

Why deflect an asteroid?

NASA's DART mission is heading towards two asteroids that form the Didymos binary system. NASA's spacecraft will intentionally collide with the smaller of the two asteroids on 26 September 2022 to see if it can alter its orbit.

ESA will then send its own mission to the two asteroids to observe in detail what happened after the impact. The Hera mission will measure the asteroid's mass and composition, analyse the crater caused by the collision and help us better understand the asteroids. In addition to the main satellite, Hera will also have two smaller probes, Juventas and Milani, which will get much closer to the asteroid, to collect scientific data and then land on it.

So far, the scientific community has incomplete information about the asteroids, and the mission is based on theoretical knowledge, not yet validated. Hera and the two probes will send us information about this binary system, helping us to better understand asteroids and find out, for example, what kind of resources are found on asteroids and whether we can use them for the benefit of humankind.

Hera will also measure whether or not the deflection attempt was successful — a method that could help us better manage asteroid risks. To see how far the satellite asteroid has moved relative to the centre of the binary system, the Hera mission needs a highly accurate altimeter.

The brain of the Hera mission, tested with equipment made in Romania

In conclusion, Hera plays a vital role in the first planetary defence mission, helping us not only to better understand asteroids, but also to test our capacity to change the trajectory of a potentially dangerous asteroid.

Thus, when we might need to deal with a dangerous asteroid in the future, life on Earth itself may depend on the mission functioning correctly. In testing the Hera mission, ATOS Romania makes an important contribution.

The Romanian team has built the equipment involved in the testing of the data management system, including the mission’s onboard computer. “This equipment, officially called the Data Handling System Special Check-Out Equipment, consists of hardware and software components, connected to the data management system. This is made up of the on-board computer, the internal memory and the terminal units on the platform, payload and propulsion. The equipment is already used for validation by QinetiQ, the Belgian contractor”, says Cătălin Dumitru, the company’s project manager.

2022 09 ATOS Hera Image C

Equipment made by ATOS România. Source: ATOS România

The equipment developed by ATOS Romania allows the simulation of an impressive number of scenarios that might be presented to the on-board computer, based on data from a great number of sensors and interfaces. This is how the on-board computer and the data management system can be observed, validated and diagnosed during the integration phase of Hera.

2022 09 ATOS Hera Image B

On-board computer tested by ESA in hard vacuum and extreme temperature conditions. A similar design is used for the Hera mission. Credit: ESA

The equipments produced in Romania are testing Hera’s communications with the Earth

ATOS Romania also produces two other pieces of critical equipment for the Hera mission. The first is the Radio Frequency Special Check-Out System that is used to test bidirectional communications between the satellite and the ground stations. Moreover, ATOS Romania produces another equipment that simulates the behaviour of ground stations and validates that the mission correctly communicates with them. As the mission relies on data and commands being transmitted through telecommunications, the Romanian team contributes to the faultless functioning of the mission.

„Currently, the equipment for testing the on-board computer was delivered to the Belgian contractor, QinetiQ. Work for the other two pieces of equipment is still in progress”, says Lucian-Valentin Moleavin, Sales Director at ATOS Romania.

Main image credit: QinetiQ Space

Main image caption: on-board computer of the laboratory model of the Hera mission, at the environment tests made by QinetiQ