Luxembourgian minister unwilling to let ESA asteroid mission die without a fight
WASHINGTON — A Luxembourgian politician wants to breathe new life into the European Space Agency’s cancelled Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) despite the program not garnering enough financial support to move forward.
AIM was to be ESA’s contribution to the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission with NASA that involved crashing a probe into an asteroid to demonstrate planetary defense techniques. Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister and minister of the economy, said Feb. 14 that Luxembourg is not happy with the decision to nix the program, and intends to restart talks about keeping the program going.
“Luxembourg deeply regrets … that ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission failed to get the financial support needed during the last council meeting at ministerial level in Switzerland. Luxembourg is convinced of the necessity of such a project, and will continue to advocate for the implementation of the AIM mission,” he said during an Asteroid Day press conference, adding that he will seek a meeting with a German economic minister at the European Union’s next competitiveness council in Brussels, Belgium, in order to discuss the mission.
The European Union’s next competitiveness council is Feb. 20. Space is not among the topics listed for discussion.
Germany’s retraction of an initially pledged 35 million euros ($37 million) unravelled the program and forced ESA Director General Jan Woerner to cancel the mission. Bremen, Germany-based OHB Systems was the prime contractor for AIM.
OHB CEO Marco Fuchs said his company, and the consortium of companies it was leading for AIM, are continuing to study the mission with the goal of tweaking it enough to be appealing to ESA member states.
“Together with ESA, I think we will come up with a piece of work that should address some of the concerns that some of the member states had in terms of reliability and in terms of predictability, schedule constraints and things like that,” he said. “We are hopeful that we can now, based on that, on the solid work done with ESA and the industrial team, together go back to some of the member states.”
Franco Ongaro, director of technology, engineering and quality, and head of the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), echoed a similar point. “We were not able to get the full funding for the mission at the ministerial, however we have sufficient encouragement from many countries … we are working on making sure that the mission can be done. We have many countries that support us, and we are working with industry to make sure that we can meet the deadline and reduce the costs in order to make it even more affordable,” he said.
The purpose of AIM is to visit Didymos and Didymoon, a pair of binary asteroids 750 meters and 160 meters in diameter, respectively. The spacecraft will map Didymoon and observe the collision of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, with Didymoon at a speed of roughly 6 kilometers per second.
AIM is also a technology demonstrator for telecommunications, and has been tied to the new field of asteroid mining, into which the Luxembourg government is investing more than $200 million. The mission is to carry a lander from the German Aerospace Center, DLR, called Mascot-2, as well as two or more cubesats and communicate with them all using an inter-satellite network in deep space.
Patrick Michel, AIM’s principal investigator at the French National Center for Scientific Research, said the program “will contribute to asteroid mining because it will greatly improve our understanding of the physical and compositional properties of asteroids.” He said it would also further develop space technology and planetary defense and bolster science.
AIM was originally scheduled for launch in 2020 so that it could reach the asteroids in 2022 when they come within 16 million kilometers of Earth. Depending on the timing of a possible restoration of AIM, the program would have to determine if this launch window is still feasible.