Among all the causes that will eventually cause the extinction of life on Earth, an asteroid hit is widely acknowledged as one of the likeliest. Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off such a hit, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth, or deflecting it off its Earth-bound course by hitting it with a spacecraft. Now, scientists have embarked on a plan to test their expertise with the second of these two methods.
It is an ambitious double-spacecraft mission to deflect an asteroid in space, to prove the technique as a viable method of planetary defence. The mission, which includes NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), is known as the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA). During September 11-13, asteroid researchers and spacecraft engineers from around the world will gather in Rome to discuss its progress.
The target is the smaller of two bodies in the “double Didymos asteroids” that are in orbit between Earth and Mars. Didymos is a near-Earth asteroid system. Its main body measures about 780 m across; the smaller body is a “moonlet” about 160 m in diameter.
The project aims to deflect the orbit of the smaller body through an impact by one spacecraft. Then a second spacecraft will survey the crash site and gather the maximum possible data on the effect of this collision, ESA explained in a statement.
Tools of the mission
NASA is building the Double Asteroid Impact Test (DART) spacecraft for launch in summer 2021. It is planned to collide with the target at 6.6 km/s in September 2022. Flying along with DART will be an Italian-made miniature CubeSat, called LICIACube, to record the moment of impact.
ESA’s contribution is a mission called Hera, which will perform a close-up survey of the post-impact asteroid, acquiring measurements such as the asteroid’s mass and detailed crater shape. Hera will also deploy a pair of CubeSats for close-up asteroid surveys and the very first radar probe of an asteroid. All this would allow researchers to model the efficiency of the collision. This can help turn this experiment into a technique that could be repeated, as needed, in the event of a real threat, ESA said.
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