ESA today awarded a contract of €129.4 million ($153.4 million) covering the comprehensive design, manufacturing, and testing of Hera, the Agency's first planetary defense mission. This groundbreaking mission would be Europe's contribution to a multinational initiative to intercept asteroids, planned to undertake continuous exploration of a binary asteroid system.

Named after the Greek goddess of marriage, Hera, along with NASA's Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft, will be the first human rendezvous probe with a binary asteroid system, a little-understood class that makes up about 15% of all identified asteroids.

Franco Ongaro, Director of Technology, Engineering, and Quality at ESA, and Marco Fuchs, CEO of Germany space group OHB, prime contractor of the Hera consortium, signed the contract today. The signing took place at the ESOC center in Germany at ESA, which will act as the mission control for the Hera, set to launch in 2024.

Hera is the European contribution to an international partnership between European and U.S. scientists on planetary defense called the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Evaluation, or AIDA. The DART spacecraft, scheduled to be deployed in July 2021, will first have to achieve a kinetic impact on the smaller of the two bodies. Hera will follow up with a detailed post-impact survey to turn this grand-scale experiment into a well-understood asteroid deflection method that can be replicated.

Hera will also show several innovative technologies, such as robotic asteroid exploration - similar to futuristic driverless vehicles on Earth - while collecting vital scientific data to help scientists and future mission leaders better understand asteroid compositions and structures.

Hera will also deploy Europe's first 'CubeSats' (mini satellites built up from 10 cm boxes) into deep space for close-up surveying of asteroids, including the very first radar probe inside an asteroid - using an enhanced version of the radar system carried out on the Rosetta comet mission by ESA.

Hera will be traveling to a binary asteroid group - the Didymos pair of near-Earth asteroids, from its October 2024 launch. The main body, 780 m in diameter, is orbited by a 160 m moon, officially christened 'Dimorphos' in June 2020, approximately the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Hera's mission control will be located at the ESOC center of ESA in Darmstadt, Germany, as well as the headquarters of the new Space Safety and Security initiative of ESA, of which Hera is part of.

This contract signing includes the development, deployment and testing of the complete Hera satellite including its advanced guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system. Contracts for the two CubeSats operated by Hera and related advances in technology are now underway.