Planetary Defence is worth
Portuguese Companies EUR 2.9 million 

The Portuguese companies Efacec, GMV, and Synopsis Planet are involved in one of the most ambitious missions of the European Space Agency: to test the possibility of diverting large asteroids off the Earth's course.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has given the green light for the EUR 129.4 million contract with the German OHB for the design, manufacture and testing of the Hera mission, which will launch a probe into a binary asteroid system in 2024. The Hera mission is the European contribution to the international project to divert an asteroid from the collision course with the Earth and to study a dual asteroid system.

Hera is ESA’s first planetary defence mission, and it engages Efacec, GMV and Synopsis Planet, Portuguese companies that will be responsible for the development of some of the fundamental elements for the mission’s success,  such as the autonomous Guidance, Navigation and Control [GNC] system that will allow the space probe to autonomously manoeuvres around a celestial body.

“Portuguese companies have spent the last few years accumulating experience, knowledge and developing the necessary skills to create unique solutions, which began as small projects and are now essential in some systems and subsystems of large international missions,” explains Ricardo Conde, president of the Portuguese Space Agency. Space security is one of the operation’s fields of interest of Portugal, in particular issues related to global defence. To follow the European effort and contribute to the development of skills in the Portuguese space sector, Portugal, at the last ESA Ministerial Summit, Space19+, a total of EUR 2.8 million for the Hera mission, under the Space Safety programme.

“We want to be part of the global effort to fight possible threats against the Earth, both by helping to give international visibility to the skills of Portuguese industry, but also by reinforcing the knowledge of the national scientific community around a theme that will be fundamental for the future of the planet”, says the president of Portugal Space.


Second largest order in Efacec’s space history


Without quantifying, Mr Vasco Granadeiro, head of the Aerospace Department of Efacec, states that the contract with OHB represents the “second largest order ever in more than 15 years of activity” in the space sector for the company. In financial terms, the request for the Hera mission is only “surpassed by the radiation monitor that will integrate the JUICE mission”, the ESA mission that aims to explore the moons of Jupiter.

In this new mission, Efacec will be in charge of developing one of the fundamental tools for achieving Hera’s objectives: the LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) altimeter. “This is a piece of equipment based on laser technology capable of measuring distances of up to 20 kilometres with an accuracy of 10 centimetres”, explains Mr Granadeiro, adding that Efacec’s contribution to this mission translates into the so-called PALT (Planetary ALTimeter). To make it happen, Efacec leads a consortium composed of another Portuguese company, Synopsis Planet, two Romanian companies (Efacec-Romania and INOE) and a Latvian company (Eventech).

Scheduled to be launched in 2024 the Hera probe will test the diversion of a potentially dangerous asteroid to Earth. Targeting the deflection of the Didymos dual asteroid system, ESA will complete the second phase of a shared mission with NASA. The USA agency will carry out the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), which predicts that the ship will collide with the smaller of the two bodies, in the second half of September 2022, using a method called “kinetic impact”, at a speed of about 6.6 km/s.

Binary asteroid systems account for about 15% of all known asteroids, but this will be the first time that they will be approached and analysed. The Didymos asteroid pair is close to Earth, although they pose no danger to the planet. The main body, similar in size to a mountain of 780 meters in diameter, is orbited by a 160-meter moon, approximately the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Two years after the DART collision, the Hera mission will carry out a detailed survey of the effects of the impact, aiming to transform this large-scale experiment into a technique that will divert asteroids whenever required.

The altimeter (PALT) developed by Efacec will make it possible to study the asteroid. Simultaneously, it will collect data to be used by the satellite navigation system, which will be another of Hera’s major innovations with a Portuguese signature.


GMV develops the first automatic pilot for asteroids in history


The operation of approach and navigation around asteroids is a task of rare demand and complexity. As Mr João Branco, responsible for the Space segment at GMV Portugal, explains: “the small size of these bodies, as well as their irregular shape and the unknown environment of deep space, make it a challenge to guide spaceships safely around them”. To meet this challenge, Mr Branco’s team is developing “a highly innovative autonomous Guidance, Navigation and Control [GNC] system to ensure the success of the mission”.

GMV Portugal will therefore be in charge of the development of fundamental elements for asteroid approach operations. “We are responsible for the onboard orbital manoeuvre control system, including the definition of hybrid navigation strategies between the Earth Segment and the ship’s GNC automatic control system”, explains GMV Space responsible.

The challenge presented to the GMV team is enormous, given the tremendous speeds and distances the celestial body is at from Earth. “In analogy, it can be considered a challenge to hit a bullet fired at 2 km in another bullet fired at the same distance”, says Mr Branco.

This is the first time in the history of European space exploration that a space probe autonomously manoeuvres around a celestial body. Still, it could not be any other way: due to the distance to the Earth, the remote controls would take hours to arrive. “The vehicle will have to be able to make automatic decisions, a highly complex algorithmic process that can only be answered because the Portuguese team at GMV has 15 years of experience in the design and development of automatic pilots for critical interplanetary missions”.

For the Portuguese company, the Hera mission is “an opportunity to progress in the value chain of a complex system within a very ambitious mission”, sums up Mr Branco. The same happens with Efacec.

“From the technological point of view, this order comes to crown Efacec’s bet on LIDAR technology, which has grown within the company by two ESA projects, the first of which dates back to 2011”, says Mr Granadeiro. According to him, it was “the success” of these contracts that allowed the Portuguese company “to gain the confidence of ESA and OHB to develop LIDAR equipment and thus put our technology to fly in this mission”. And what could be seen as the finishing line is, after all, a starting point for other flights.

Efacec believes that “the technology will have more opportunities to return to space in the future, namely on board of returnable launchers or on missions that involve measuring distances such as the removal of space debris”, to which the company adds the “great potential” for technology transfer to the drone sector. “We have already started to study the market and the potential competition, and we think we have found a gap to which our technology can respond”, Mr Granadeiro underlines.


Synopsis Planet: From university to market

The future planetary defence mission is not just an example of how national companies are moving forward in the space value chain. It is also the case of how the knowledge that is produced in Portuguese universities has commercial potential and reaches the market.

The trio of Portuguese companies present at Hera closes with Synopsis Planet, a spin-off from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, which will develop the laser microchip of Efacec’s altimeter, in addition to participating in the creation of the optical front-end.

“The laser we are developing is a microchip laser (weighing less than 50 g), which generates laser pulses of 1535 nm of 2ns, and is used as the altimeter’s light source”, explains Mr Paulo Gordo. The founder of the startup and member of ESA’s scientific team working on the Hera mission, says that the creation of Synopsis Planet is a striking example of the transfer of knowledge from academia to industry, and this is one of the company’s key focuses. “We intend to produce equipment or provide services for the space sector that currently do not exist in Portugal, and we also intend to transfer these technologies to other non-space sectors of activity”, whether in the area of optics, optoelectronics and/or environmental testing, states Mr Gordo.

The issue of planetary defence has been on the research agenda of scientists and space agencies for several years and has already served as a script for several Hollywood films. Although NASA guarantees that there is a 0.2% probability of an asteroid hitting the Earth in 2185, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Portugal Space
12 of October, 2020