Emerging Tech

NASA teams with European counterparts to stop asteroids hitting Earth

If a massive asteroid ever hits Earth, the best-case scenario means a few problems getting to work that day.

The worst case, however, could include tsunamis, thermal radiation, wind blasts, seismic shaking, loss of sunlight, and possibly the end of all life on this planet.

That’s why we don’t want it to happen.

Currently, scientists believe our best chance of dealing with a large, incoming asteroid is to either smash it into bits before it gets here, or cause an impact in space that alters its course. You won’t be surprised to learn that both options are easier said than done.

But the high stakes have compelled the U.S. and European space agencies to form a partnership to take on the challenge of finding an effective way to stop a large asteroid from hitting our planet and potentially sending us the same way as the dinosaurs.

Unlike us, the dinosaur community had no clever scientists among its ranks, meaning that we humans have a much better chance of finding a realistic solution.

With this important goal in mind, asteroid researchers and spacecraft engineers from the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world will convene in Rome, Italy next week for a three-day meeting to discuss their latest plans for a daring double-spacecraft mission aimed at deflecting an asteroid. The ambitious project is part of a trial effort to demonstrate that the technique can one day function as an effective method of planetary defense.

This mission, called the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA), is aiming to crash a spacecraft into the smaller body (about 160 meters in diameter) of the two Didymos asteroids in a bid to alter its course as it hurtles between Earth and Mars.

If successful, the second spacecraft will record the moment of impact and collect as much data as possible to assess the effects of the collision.

High-speed impact

The mission is slated to launch in the summer of 2021, with NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Impact Test) spacecraft aiming to smash into its target at a speed of 4.1 miles a second when it reaches the space rock in September 2022.

The second spacecraft is an Italian-made miniature CubeSat called LICIACube (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids) and will be used to record the moment of impact and assess the damage.

At the same time, Earth-based observatories will measure the effect of the impact on the asteroid’s orbit

Asteroid landing

At a later date, the European Space Agency will follow up with the Hera mission in a bid to get even closer to the impacted asteroid, and possibly even land on it. Using two CubeSats, the mission is expected to gather more detailed data from the crash site.

Data collected by Hera should enable scientists to further develop the technology as they work to create a viable system for deployment in the event of a serious asteroid threat.

It’s hoped the Hera mission can begin in October 2024, with its journey to the asteroid taking around two years. Fingers crossed nothing big comes our way in the meantime.

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