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ESA Awards Contracts For Don Quijote Asteroid Impact Mission Designs

Artist's conception of the impact moment on ESA's Don Quijote mission. The orbiting Sancho spacecraft has retreated to a safe distance to observe how the impactor Hidalgo crashes into the asteroid. After the impact, Sancho will come closer and inspect the changes. Image credit: ESA/AOES Medialab
by Staff Writers
Paris France (SPX) Apr 3, 2006
ESA has awarded contracts to three industrial teams to carry out initial design studies for the agency's proposed mission to attempt to deflect the path of an asteroid. The mission, called Don Quijote, will comprise a primary spacecraft called Hildago, and an impactor called Sancho.

Scheduled for launch in 2011, the spacecraft will approach a pre-selected asteroid, where Hildago will fling Sancho at the object, retreat to a safe distance, and then observe the consequences of the collision.

Secondary mission goals would include deployment of an autonomous surface package and several other experiments and measurements.

ESA has named a team headed by Alcatel Alenia Space as prime contractor for the beginning phase of the project. The team will include subcontractors and consultants from across Europe and Canada. Alcatel Alenia Space developed the European Huygens probe to Saturn's moon Titan and currently is working on ESA's ExoMars mission.

The agency awarded a second contract to a consortium led by EADS Astrium, which includes DEIMOS Space from Spain and consultants from several European countries. The companies have worked on ESA interplanetary missions including Rosetta and the Mars and Venus Express orbiters.

The third award went to a team led by the U.K. firm QinetiQ, which includes companies and partners in Sweden and Belgium, and has worked on ESA's SMART-1 and Proba projects.

ESA plans to review the design studies in October, with the support of an international panel of experts, and will make the review results available in 2007.

The agency's aim in the Don Quijote mission is to explore possible means of deflecting the paths of asteroids that could threaten Earth. If an asteroid even as small as the recently identified 2004 VD17 about 500 meters (310 feet) in diameter with a mass of nearly 1-billion tons would collide with the Earth, at a presumed speed of several miles per second, it could spell disaster for much of the planet.

ESA has been addressing the problem of how to prevent collisions with large Near-Earth Objects for some time. In 1996, the Council of Europe called for the agency to take action as part of a "long-term global strategy for remedies against possible impacts." Recommendations from other international organizations - including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - soon followed.

In response to these and other calls, ESA commissioned a number of threat-evaluation and mission studies through its General Studies Programme. In July 2004, the preliminary phase was completed when a panel of experts appointed by ESA recommended giving the Don Quijote asteroid-deflecting mission concept maximum priority.

The immediate risk remains small, and may even decrease when new observations are completed. Nevertheless, if an object such as 99942 Apophis - which will approach Earth in 2029 closely enough to be visible to the naked eye - collides with the planet, the energy released could equal or surpass the power of the world's nuclear arsenal, resulting in devastation across national borders.

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X-Rays Reveal 250000 Tonnes Of Water Released By Deep Impact
Leicester, UK (SPX) Mar 31, 2006
Observations by the Swift spacecraft of the collision last July 4 between Comet Tempel 1 and a probe released by NASA's Deep Impact mission showed the comet grew brighter and brighter in X-ray light, in an outburst that lasted 12 days and released about 250,000 tons of water.

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