NASA and the ESA plan to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid

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NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to knock an asteroid off course with a spacecraft.

Researchers from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) recently attended a conference in Rome, Italy. They met to discuss their joint plans to deflect an asteroid by crashing a spacecraft into it.

Over 130 scientists gathered to measure progress on the AIDA project, which stands for “asteroid impact and deflection assessment,” according to an MIT Technology Review report.

Ultimately, the pair of space agencies aim to “slam a spacecraft into a near-Earth asteroid and then study the impact” to see if humans might be able to divert future incoming space hazards from smashing into the Earth.

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AIDA’s Target Asteroid

AIDA’s target is a binary asteroid system named (65803) Didymos. According to NASA, the primary Didymos body is about 780 meters wide while its secondary body (aka “moonlet”) is about 160 meters across.

Researchers continue to study the Didymos system via telescopes here on Earth. Observations show that the primary body revolves once every 2.26 hours while the moonlet travels around it once every 11.9 hours.

The Didymos system is considered a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). If this system or an asteroid like it makes impact with Earth, it could cause massive destruction. Therefore, NASA and the ESA are testing a preemptive spacecraft strike against the asteroid. They then plan to study the collision’s effectiveness.

DART Mission Details

NASA’s DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect Didymos’ moonlet. DART stands for the “Double Asteroid Redirection Test.” Various NASA centers support the DART mission including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Langley Research Center (LRC), Johnson Space Center (JSC) and more.

DART is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in July 2021. It will take 16 months for the spacecraft to reach Didymos. When it arrives, it will smash into the asteroid system’s moonlet at about 14,700 mph.

Ideally, the force of the impact should be enough to throw off the secondary body’s orbit around the primary body. As a result, it should change the asteroid’s trajectory.

Furthermore, an Italian-designed CubeSat called LICIACUBE (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids) will deploy from DART before impact to record images of the collision.

As part of this mission, NASA will also test new spaceflight technologies.

First, the space agency will test a new solar electric propulsion system called NASA Evolutionary Xeon Thruster Commercial (NEXT-C). This technology will propel DART during its space journey and demonstrate next-gen ion engine technology.

Secondly, NASA will demonstrate SMART Nav (Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real-Time Navigation) during the mission. SMART Nav boasts a new algorithm for spacecraft guidance and control. The system will guide DART to the moonlet for impact.

ESA’s Hera Follow Up Mission

Following DART’s mission, the ESA will launch a spacecraft called Hera in 2023. It should arrive at Didymos by 2027 or 2028. Hera will record data from the DART impact to help researchers understand how the impact affected the asteroid. A pair of mini satellites will also probe the asteroid to gather additional information.

“The mission objective is to fully validate the most efficient asteroid deflection technique: the kinetic impactor,” Ian Carnelli, Hera mission manager, said in a statement to Newsweek. “NASA’s DART will demonstrate the terminal guidance necessary to impact a small 160-meter diameter asteroid, which is the size representative of the most probable threat. Using ground-based observatories around the world, we will also be able to measure from the ground the amount of ‘deflection’ it has imparted.”

If the mission is successful, it will mark the first time that humans have redirected the path of an object in space.

An Ongoing Threat?

Massive asteroids hitting Earth seems like a phenomenon that people would only witness in an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. However, thousands of these rocky space bodies do exist. The question is, do asteroids pose an ongoing threat to life as we know it?

According to data from NASA’s JPL, researchers have discovered over 20,000 NEAs to date. Of those, 5,000 are “potentially hazardous.” Plus, scientists discover new NEAs continuously. They detected the most recent one on September 19.

Thankfully, researchers have not identified any asteroids that have a chance of hitting the Earth in the next hundred years. However, Carnelli suggests that an impact of some kind may occur in the future.

“Earth is covered by past asteroid impact craters,” Carnelli said. “Currently, no asteroid poses a threat, but one day it will happen again. The major risk is posed by 150-meter-class objects, we know very few of them, and there are potentially hundreds of thousands somewhat close to Earth. Such an object impacting Earth would generate casualties independently from the impact location and have devastating effects on the economy and society.”

Overall, a mission like DART will give researchers invaluable information in their quest to protect the planet from hazardous asteroids.