Can CubeSats Save Humanity from Asteroids?

A shoebox-sized satellite is ready to embark on a deep space journey to potentially save Planet Earth from killer asteroids.

The Milani CubeSat is ready to perform closeup mineral prospecting of Dimorphos, a small asteroid whose velocity was successfully altered in 2022 as part of NASA’s DART mission.

Funded through the Italian Space Agency, the Milani CubeSat will be deployed into space as part of the payload of the Hera mission spacecraft. Milani will venture into deep space alongside Juventas for probing the asteroid.

They’ll be the first CubeSats to land on an asteroid and the first European mini satellites to enter deep space.

ESA system engineer Franco Perez Lissi said, “ESA’s first deep space CubeSat was developed in record time by an incredible team.”

Scientists hope the mission will provide insights into the composition and behavior of asteroids that can help predict their paths, potential impact energy, and potential methods for deflection.

NASA launched the first CubeSats into deep space as part of its Mars Cube One mission in 2018.

The Hera project is the ESA’s mission designed to test and validate technologies and methods for asteroid deflection. It’s part of Europe’s collaboration with NASA.

The Milani CubeSat was showcased to the press at prime contractor Tyvak International’s facility in Turin. Margherita Cardi, a Tyvak VP and Milani program manager, called the CubeSat a “paramount achievement.”

Milani will now be flown to the ESA’s ESTEC Test Centre in the Netherlands, where Hera is undergoing preflight testing. An inter-satellite link system will integrate Hera, Milani, and Juventas as they fly around Didymos, a binary asteroid system consisting of two bodies.

Milani will survey Dimorphos, as well as the larger Didymos object it orbits around, in a range of colors that’s wider than what’s perceivable to the human eye.

The mini satellite will identify mineral makeup of the asteroids, the individual boulders resting on them, and the dust particles surrounding them. Juventas will track the asteroid’s gravitational pull to help assess mass.

They will spend several months in deep space. They’ll be protected inside a pair of Deep Space Destroyers during Hera’s two-year cruise phase to Didymos.

CubeSats are tiny, stackable satellites that are popular because they’re less expensive and quicker to build than traditional space satellites.They gained popularity in the 2000s, especially in academia, and have grown in sophistication since.

The ESA calls Milani a “full-fledged spacecraft in its own right,” with its visible light camera, laser altimeter, navigational star trackers, and cold gas propulsion system.

Landing the satellite on the asteroid will be extremely challenging due to the object’s small size, its low gravity, and the Didymos system’s complex dynamics.

Other challenges are avoiding unpredictable terrain and executing precise deep space maneuvers, with limited propulsion and communication delays.

Instead of going into traditional orbit around the system, Milani will perform a series of repeated flybys with thrusters regularly shifting direction to remain as close as needed.
One side of Milani houses four sensors belonging to an Asteroid Spectral Imager, an instrument developed by the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland. It’ll image the asteroids in visible, near, and shortwave infrared bands.

Antti Näsilä, a principal scientist and VTT project manager, said: “ASPECT is a hyperspectral imager whose heritage goes back to a series of instruments flown on drones, variously used for agricultural, forestry, and pollution monitoring.”

Milani’s second instrument is called Volatile In-Situ Thermogravimetre Analyser, or VISTA, an Italian-built dust detector outfitted with quartz microcrystals.

The Dimorphos asteroid is about 160 meters, or 525 feet, about the size of a football field and a half. It poses no threat to Earth. If an asteroid this size did collide with the planet, it would likely cause significant regional damage but would not be an existential threat to humanity.

The asteroid that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs is estimated to be around 10 to 15 kilometers, or 6 to 9 miles, significantly larger than Dimorphos.

As of March 2024, there are 2,349 potentially hazardous asteroids identified but none of them are on a collision course with Earth, according to SpaceWeather dot com.

The last known major asteroid on Earth was in 1908 in Siberia Russia, known as the Tunguska Event. The largest recorded impact in Earth’s history flattened an estimated 80 million trees across 2,150 square kilometers, or 830 square miles.

Left unchecked, it’s only a matter of time before an asteroid wipes out humanity, though no threats of that magnitude have been detected.