Research into deflecting potentially world-destroying asteroids is apparently not a ‘national priority’ for the UK
The European Space Agency (ESA) has let people know where €129.4m of work for its Hera mission will go. The UK is, unsurprisingly, not on the list.
Hera, named for the Greek goddess of marriage, will follow NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft to a rendezvous with the Didymos pair of Near-Earth asteroids. DART will “perform a kinetic impact” into the smaller of the bodies while Hera will follow up with a post-impact survey.
The hope is that the mission will demonstrate asteroid redirection techniques as well as study what this class of asteroid is made of.
Hera will also deploy cubesats to perform close-up surveying, including a radar system derived from that carried on the hugely successful Rosetta mission.
DART is expected to smack into Dimorphos, the smaller asteroid, in September 2022. Hera will turn up four years later for at least six months of study.
Hera is not ESA’s first crack at buddying up with DART. A more ambitious predecessor, Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), would have arrived in time to observe the plume from the impact, but was cancelled back in 2016 and replaced by Hera in 2018.
The contract to design, manufacture and test the desk-sized Hera spacecraft has been awarded to German outfit OHB. Bremen-based OHB took a substantial bite out of ESA’s Copernicus award pie earlier this year while the UK, a major ESA contributor, did not fare so well.
This time around, 17 of ESA’s 22 member states will share in the work, and an associate member, Latvia, will also make a contribution.
A read through the list of countries in the consortium might be, at first glance, profoundly disappointing for those trumpeting Britain’s smarts in space. While the usual suspects, such as Germany and Italy, are at the forefront, and Portugal, Finland and Romania are also involved, the UK is absent from the project.
The Register understands that the United Kingdom opted out of this part of ESA’s programme, regarding asteroid defence as not a national priority and has instead directed its funding elsewhere.
A UK Space Agency spokesperson said: “The UK made a record investment in European Space Agency programmes in November 2019, including £80m on space safety and security for missions on space weather and space debris. Our investment decisions are driven by our national priorities and commitment to delivering value for money.”
Following ESA’s Hera announcement, the agency trumpeted seven UK companies sharing a £1m award to help track debris in space. The body reckons there are approximately 160 million bits and pieces in orbit, posing a potential threat to satellite fleets.
An ESA Earth observation satellite had to change its orbit to reduce the risk of a collision with one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites last year.
For its part, the Hera team’s take was gloriously blunt about the UK’s absence: “The answer is very simple, UK decided not to subscribe and therefore participate in the mission. Thus UK industries cannot participate. This is a UK government decision.”
It is a shame that the UK’s prowess in the space sector will not be put to use in this instance. Still, at least Brit astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May got to explain how the thing would work.
So that’s alright then. ®