ESA Launches Competition for Deep Space CubeSats

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission spacecraft will be humanity’s first mission to a binary system – the paired Didymos asteroids, which come a comparatively close 11 million km to Earth in 2022. (Credit: APL)
ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission spacecraft will be humanity’s first mission to a binary system – the paired Didymos asteroids, which come a comparatively close 11 million km to Earth in 2022. (Credit: APL)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Think of it as the ultimate hitchhiking opportunity: ESA is offering CubeSats a ride to a pair of asteroids in deep space.

CubeSats are among the smallest types of satellites: formed in standard cubic units of 10 cm per side, they provide affordable access to space for small companies, research institutes and universities. One-, two- or three-unit CubeSats are already being flown.

Teams of researchers and companies from any ESA Member State are free to compete. The selected CubeSats will become Europe’s first to travel beyond Earth orbit once the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) is launched in October 2020.

“AIM has room for a total of six CubeSat units,” explains Ian Carnelli, managing the mission for ESA. “So potentially that might mean six different one-unit CubeSats could fly, but in practice it might turn out that two three-unit CubeSats will be needed to produce meaningful scientific return.

“We’re looking for innovative ideas for CubeSat-hosted sensors that will boost and complement AIM’s own scientific return.

“We also intend to use these CubeSats, together with AIM itself and its asteroid lander, to test out intersatellite communications networking.

“ESA’s SysNova initiative will be applied to survey a comparatively large number of alternative solutions, this competition framework giving industry and universities the opportunity to work together on developing their scientific investigations in a field that is the technological cutting edge.”

A pair of triple-unit CubeSats. ESA's 2020 Asteroid Impact Mission spacecraft will have room to carry six CubeSat units – potentially single-unit miniature spacecraft but more probably a pair of larger CubeSats as seen here. (Credit: ESA / The Science Office Ltd.)
A pair of triple-unit CubeSats. ESA’s 2020 Asteroid Impact Mission spacecraft will have room to carry six CubeSat units – potentially single-unit miniature spacecraft but more probably a pair of larger CubeSats as seen here. (Credit: ESA / The Science Office Ltd.)

Beginning its preliminary Phase-A/B design work next month, ESA’s AIM spacecraft will be humanity’s first mission to a binary system – the paired Didymos asteroids, which come a comparatively close 11 million km to Earth in 2022. The 800 m-diameter main body is orbited by a 170 m moon.

AIM will perform high-resolution visual, thermal and radar mapping of the moon. It will also put down a lander – ESA’s first touchdown on a small body since Rosetta’s Philae landed on a comet last November.

AIM also represents ESA’s contribution to a larger international effort, the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

The NASA-led Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe will impact the smaller body, while AIM will perform detailed before-and-after mapping, including pinpointing any shift in the asteroid’s orbit.

“While it will return invaluable science,” adds Ian, “AIM is conceived as a technology demonstration mission, testing out various technologies and techniques needed for deep space expeditions in future.

“These include two-way high-bandwidth optical communications – with data being returned via laser beam to ESA’s station in Tenerife – as well as intersatellite links in deep space and low-gravity lander operations.

“Once demonstrated, these capabilities will be available to future deep-space endeavours, such as Lagrange-point observatories returning large amounts of data and sample return missions to Phobos – and ultimately Mars – as well as crewed missions far beyond Earth orbit.”

The chance to put forward CubeSats is being organised as a SysNova competition, an initiative by ESA’s General Studies Programme – which is running the AIM project – to compare innovative solutions to space mission challenges.

Interested teams can get more information from the published announcement of opportunity. As a next step, qualified teams can submit initial ‘challenge responses’ describing their proposed mission concepts and how they address the defined technical challenges associated with operating such small spacecraft close to an asteroid.

The winning submissions will then be funded by ESA for further study over the next seven months, following up with a final review at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. The victors will then work with ESA to elaborate their designs, including sessions at ESTEC’s Concurrent Design Facility.

  • windbourne

    great idea.
    I have always thought that constellations of sats beat singular large ones any day.
    It would be interesting to allow for a cube to return to parent sat and then be re-fueled.

  • Kapitalist

    Are deep space cubesats really a good idea? Don’t they need a dedicated launcher to their deep space target? Or a propulsion system to get them there if launched as secondary payload to LEO or GEO. And then costs skyrocket and makes a much more ambitious probe the rational optimal choice. If one pays $50 million just to get there, then $5 or $10 millions extra on the science payload might be a good deal on the margin, and then it’s not a cubesat anymore.

  • Aerospike

    The cubesats that come out of this challenge are supposed to ride piggyback on an ESA spacecraft to an asteroid.

  • Kapitalist

    Daughter satellites, like the tiny lander of Hayabusa 2, classed as cubesat or not, looks like a really great concept! Animation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n57_UmNH62I And to do something in the outer Solar system in our lifetime, a split up fast flyby might be an alternative. Several flyby’s in one.

  • windbourne

    where life gets interesting is that using constellation sats for fly-bys might allow leaving small sats at the item of interest.

  • Sam Moore

    Hold on, AIDA is a funded mission now? When did that happen?

  • Larry J

    This project is interesting. Very small satellites are limited in both electrical power and antenna size. This project implies that the cubesats will radio their data back to the host satellite which in turn uses optical communications to send data back to Earth. This greatly reduces the downlink power, antenna size, and pointing accuracy requirements on the cubesats and lets the designers concentrate on data acquisition. Very cool. I’m trying to think of some good data acquisition sensors that could fit into a cubesat other than simple cameras.

    I’ve read some interesting articles about work to develop propulsion systems for cubesats. IIRC, most of these are for 2U, 3U, or larger cubesats. I don’t recall any significant propulsion systems for 1U cubesats but I could be wrong. It would probably be easier to have the cubesats hold steady and have the host vehicle rendezvous with them.

  • Matt

    As I said some months ago, “cheap” small interplanetary probes may be an alternative to large flagship missions. However, one problem can be long distance communication. Are there alternatives? Pinpointed laser?