It doesn’t look like much, does it? Most landers and spacecraft don’t. But it’s what’s under the hood that can change our understanding of worlds far beyond our own.
Mascot-2 is just one part of the broader Asteroid Impact Mission, or AIM. We won’t know if the mission is officially approved until December. And if it is, the mission won’t launch until 2020.
Let’s assume AIM gets the green light from the ESA’s Council of Ministers. AIM’s objectives, like many missions, are two-fold. Demonstrate new technologies while gathering valuable science.
Did You Know: Mascot-2’s older brother, Mascot-1, is already heading for an asteroid. JAXA’s (Japan’s Space Agency) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is heading for the asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft is expected to reach the asteroid in July 2018 and survey the asteroid for about 16 months before returning to Earth.
AIM’s target is a pair of asteroids – Didymos and Didymoon. Didymos measures 800 meters in diameter while Didymoon is just 170 meters. AIM’s focus in the smaller one.
Here’s how the ESA describes their technology focus on the mission.
“AIM is intended to qualify two-way optical communications for deep space. It will map Didymoon, down to 1-m resolution, rapidly returning this copious volume of data to Earth in by laser link, to ESA’s Optical Ground Station in Tenerife.
AIM would also qualify an inter-satellite communication network in deep space, between AIM, the MASCOT-2 lander and the CubeSats.”
Communications are the most important part of any space mission, and the ESA is always looking for ways to improve it.
As for the Mascot-2 asteroid lander? If it successfully lands on Didymoon, it will the ESA’s first toucdown on a small body since Philae bounced around on Comet 67p in November 2014.
Mascot-2’s primary goal is to “provide data on the surface mechanical properties in at least once location (goal is three locations.” That’s right. Three different locations. Mascot stands for Mobile asteroid surface scout. It’s capable of lifting off of the asteroid and repositioning itself using a “spring-like mobility mechanism.”
AIM’s mission is stand-alone, but the proposed DART mission from NASA could make the science gathered at Didymoon even more valuable. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will send a spacecraft straight into Didymoon at nearly 6 kilometers per second. Following this impact, AIM and Mascot-2 will observe how this impact affected the asteroid.
It “would mark the first time humanity has altered the dynamics of a Solar System body in a measurable way,” says the ESA.
We won’t know if AIM will be official until December. If it is, we’ll be waiting until 2022 before DART slams into Didymoon – and Mascot-2, along with AIM, figures out how much the impact changed the small asteroid.