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Advanced research in Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and new payload technologies for planetary defence

The aim of this topic is the maturation or adaptation to specific use case of existing modelling capabilities and the development of technologies and instruments in support of missions to asteroids.

Each proposal shall address one or two of the following three sub-topics:

a) Maturation or adaptation to specific use cases of existing modelling capabilities.

These include the modelling of the outcome of a kinetic impactor as a function of assumed physical properties, and the implementation of benchmarking campaigns for the cross-validation of the different impact numerical models. The modelling of the dynamical and physical states of a target NEO (including binary asteroids) and their changes due to the effects of a kinetic impactor, should also be addressed, as well as modelling and testing geophysical surface and regolith processes in the low-gravity regimes of NEOs (this includes also thermal processes and surface composition characteristics).

b) Development of instruments, technologies and associated data exploitation models in support of missions to asteroids.

Payload developments are necessary to increase the knowledge of asteroid physical properties directly influencing the efficiency of a kinetic impactor deflection mission. These should include specific focus on the sub-surface and interior structure, as well as the surface mechanical properties via direct and indirect measurement techniques (such as the response of a surface to the interaction with a lander). Focus should be placed on high-accuracy shape models, surface topography and features, including the impact crater of a kinetic impactor and its surroundings.

Maximum exploitation of scientific and technical data shall be ensured by developing all the necessary algorithms and simulators to be prepared for close-proximity operations and payload data analyses (e.g. shape reconstruction from multiple data sources, performance simulators for radioscience, etc.). Specific focus shall be placed on the conditions required by payload instruments to fulfill the mission objectives.

c) Improvement of our knowledge of the physical characteristics of the NEO population.

Focus is on fostering the physical characterization of NEOs by:

1) the efficient use and pooling of existing large aperture telescopes, radar facilities and data processing capabilities; 2) performing high-quality physical observations and calculation; 3) developing methods for rapid estimation of the orbit of an object and characterization of its physical and dynamical properties; and 4) fostering international collaboration focused on timely follow-up observations of potentially hazardous objects (PHOs).

The proposed project shall coordinate with existing surveys devoted to NEO discovery and radar facilities in order to provide a rapid response system for quickly characterize a small asteroid flying-by or in route of collision with the Earth (imminent impactor).

For all aforementioned sub-topics, proposals shall seek complementarity and synergy with related European initiatives or international coordination efforts such as those undertaken by ESA or in the framework of the UN.

The involvement of post-graduate scientists, engineers and researchers is encouraged, for example through professional work experience or through fellowships/scholarships as applicable.

The Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU of between EUR 2 and 4 million would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. Nonetheless, this does not preclude submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts.

This topic contributes to the Horizon 2020 focus area ""Boosting the effectiveness of the Security Union "".

It is fundamental to improve our understanding of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) through scientific modelling as well as the development of spacecraft instruments and data exploitation, both for the design of asteroids impact mitigation missions and the assessment of the associated effects.

In addition, in order to conduct spacecraft close proximity operations to NEOs and undertake mitigation demonstration missions, it is necessary to have a number of specific technologies and instruments readily available to conduct missions to asteroids with very weak gravitational fields.

The selection of NEO targets for space missions, either for science or mitigation, must guarantee both technical feasibility and high scientific/mitigation return. In this respect ground-based observations represent an essential means to investigate the physical and dynamical properties of the NEO population as a whole, thus leading to further strengthening the science return of a mission, as well as optimising the choice of mission targets. At present our knowledge of the physical characteristics of the NEO population is only around 20%.

New technologies, such as wide-field high-sensitivity telescopes, will provide in the near future the possibility to detect with enough warning time (from hours to days) the so-called ""imminent impactors"", i.e. asteroids discovered while in route of collision with the Earth. The vast majority are objects of a few meters in size which are likely to eventually produce meteorites. Performing a physical characterization of these objects before they enter the Earth's atmosphere would provide data needed for calibrating the models used to determine the physical characteristics of the NEO population from ground observational data. The capability to network large telescopes, as well as radar facilities, with such wide-field assets will be key for such physical characterization.

  • Advance our understanding of the dynamical and physical states of a target NEO and their changes due to the effects of a kinetic impactor;
  • Advance payload technology, and the associated performance simulators for the thorough characterization of asteroid properties affecting planetary defence missions;
  • Advance the capability of timely detection and characterization of potential imminent impactors of Earth.