Planetary Defense: Italy’s LICIACube Flies with DART Toward a Collision with an Asteroid

LICIACube (Credit: Argotec)

The journey into deep space of the satellite of the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube satellite has begun.

ROME (ASI PR) — The first planetary defense mission of NASA DART, which carries the LICIACube satellite built by Argotec, in collaboration and with the contribution of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), was launched as scheduled on Nov. 24 at 07.21 Italian time from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

LICIACube (acronym of Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids), a technological jewel of only 30 x 20 x 10 cm [11.8 x 7.9 x 3.9 in] and about 13 kilograms [28.7 lb], is an ASI project entirely built in the Argotec company in Turin, and is the first satellite built in Italy to undertake a journey into deep space. The Falcon 9 rocket of the private American company SpaceX was used for the launch.

The objective of the mission will be to reach, in the autumn of next year, the binary system composed of the asteroid Didymos and its satellite Dimorphos and make the American probe DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) impact at high speed against the latter while LICIACube, staying at a safe distance, will have the task of photographing and acquiring the impact data to verify if the asteroid will deviate its trajectory. 

DART will therefore be the first full-scale test of the kinetic impact technique for the purpose of Planetary Defense for the protection of the Earth, if in the future there are dangerous situations caused by celestial objects that intersect the Earth’s orbit.

Neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, but their orbit around the Sun makes them transit close enough to our planet for telescopes to observe the aftermath of the DART collision and calculate how effective the mission will have been in altering the trajectory of Dimorphos following the impact. The variation of the period of revolution of the latter around its more massive rocky companion will be measured in the phases immediately following the impact and then cumulatively for the following months and years. In addition to what was detected from the Earth, the images acquired by LICIACube will provide unique elements acquired in situ and in the moments just after the impact, also relevant for the measurement of orbital deflection.

The all-Italian scientific team of LICIACube includes researchers from the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), the Polytechnic of Milan, the Universities of Bologna and Parthenope of Naples, the IFAC-CNR of Florence, and is coordinated by Elisabetta Dotto ( INAF). In recent months, INAF has coordinated with the Galileo National Telescope (TNG) a campaign of spectroscopic observations of the asteroid Didymos that covers the entire rotation of the object.

“The small cubesat LICIACube of the Italian Space Agency,” commented ASI president Giorgio Saccoccia. “will have a highly challenging task in this unique planetary defense mission that will pave the way for many other missions. It is no coincidence that this task was entrusted to Italy – the only international partner of the mission – confirming the solidity of the bilateral relations between NASA and ASI and the reliability of the national industry and the scientific team made up of Italian research institutions and universities.”

“After about two years of work, this morning it was really impressive to be able to witness the start of the LICIACube microsatellite completely designed and built within our Turin plants,” said Argotec’s David Avino. “Argotec’s satellite platform is among the most technologically advanced in the world, capable of operating in deep space ensuring high performance despite its small size. We are very proud to be aboard such an ambitious and future useful NASA mission for planetary defense. The next appointment is set for autumn 2022 when, from our Argotec control center in Turin, we will support the satellite’s activities in real time: from the release from the American probe to the acquisition of high-resolution images of the DART impact.”

Ten days before the impact, LICIACube will be released into space and will carry out, in autonomous navigation, a fly-by of the asteroid system approaching up to about 50 kilometers away. From that distance it will acquire high-resolution images of the crater and the debris generated by the collision, to allow a full assessment of the impact effects. 

All the data produced in this phase of the mission will be fundamental to verify the effectiveness of the variation capacity of the asteroid orbit through this technique. Furthermore, the Italian and American scientific teams will use the data acquired by DART and LICIACube for investigations on the nature and composition of the asteroid.

The set of images will be purchased from LICIACube through two on-board cameras, named LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid). LICIACube’s X-band communication system will then transmit the images to Earth in the months following the DART collision. On the basis of these optical surveys it will also be possible to carry out specific scientific investigations, which are thus added to the expected results of the mission for the purposes of Planetary Defense.

ASI, through the Space Science Data Center, is also responsible for data management and the Science Operations Center. Software has been developed that can manage the flow of data automatically, so as to make them available according to an international standard. recognized and designed to make the data FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable), also thanks to the MATISSE webtool of SSDC.