NASA and ESA will be working together to blast asteroids away from Earth

The US’ NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will be meeting next week in Rome to discuss technology development of how they will be steering asteroids away from Earth.

In particular, they will be going through the on-going development and progress of the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which is a joint research mission by the two space agencies with plans of testing the possibility of launching a spacecraft and letting it crash on the asteroid.

In essence, AIDA hopes that the spacecraft crashing on any incoming asteroid will be effective enough to divert its supposed direction towards Earth.

In AIDA’s first test of the theory, NASA and the ESA have identified two Didymos asteroids between Earth and Mars and try to deflect the orbit of at least one of the two.

The test will also compose an observer craft, which will gauge the effect of the impact more effectively as compared to what ground-based observers could manage.

“It is vital that Europe plays a leading role in AIDA, an innovative mission originally developed through ESA research back in 2003,” said Ian Carnelli from ESA.

“An international effort is the appropriate way forward – planetary defense is in everyone’s interest,” he added.

Specifically, NASA will provide the spacecraft collider, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which is intended to crash into the smaller of the two Didyos asteroids at about 14,764 Mph.

As of now, NASA has already begun construction for the DDart spacecraft and is expected to launch in summer 2021 and collide on its target in September 2022.

Meanwhile, n Italian CubeSat called LICIACube will be used to study the moment of impact, taking vital data of the force and after-effects of the collision.

After that, the ESA will launch a Hera probe in October 2024 to study the target asteroid, including the impact crater, mass and a radar probe (the first-ever for an asteroid). Hera will take roughly two years to arrive.

On the other hand, scientists specifically chose the asteroid pair because it was easy to test. The smaller rock orbits are slow enough that it should be realistic to change its orbit in a noticeable way. That wouldn’t be an option with an asteroid flying solo in a solar orbit, the ESA said.

Appearing on a Joe Rogan podcast last year, scientists Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explained how it is easy to defend Earth against threats we can easily see.

He said: “It’s all about how much timing we have, what you want to do is go out and nudge it. You just have to give it a sideways velocity relative to its path towards Earth. If you do that, the sideways velocity sort of accumulates and the angle grows.”

An artist’s impression of the Asteroid Impact Mission taking notes as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test crashes into Didymoon.
Source: ESA | Science Office

There are currently 850 “near-Earth asteroids” (NEAs) on ESA’s risk list and over 18,000 known “near-Earth objects” (NEOs), according to the ESA.

Impacts of small space rocks with Earth are relatively common, it added, and although larger impacts are rarer, they are still possible and can cause catastrophic damage.

Particularly, asteroids identified within 5 million miles (8 million km) of Earth’s orbit are considered potentially hazardous by NASA and the space agency identifies about 60 to 120 of these objects every year.

Statistically, small asteroids sweep near Earth all the time. It’s not unusual for a small asteroid to sweep closer to us than the moon. Scientists estimate that several dozen asteroids in the 6– to 12-meter (20- to 39-feet) size range fly by Earth at a distance closer than the moon every year. However, only a fraction of these is detected.

Just last month, an asteroid dubbed a “city killer” almost crashed on Earth and scientists barely noticed. Traveling at 15 miles per second, the giant space rock designated as Asteroid “2019 OK” missed Earth by just 45,000 miles. To put that into perspective, the moon is about 240,000 miles away.

Particularly, the effect of an asteroid impact on Earth depends on many factors, such as the location of impact, trajectory and the physical properties of the asteroid.

While we have the technology available to mitigate such a threat from an asteroid, it has never been tested in realistic conditions.

Considerably, there’s a significant difference from tests like these with an actual crisis. However, this should be enough to establish data for a future deflection system that may become an effective defense strategy against bigger and faster asteroids.

Furthermore, scientists say that the results of Hera will allow researchers to turn the experiment into a technique that could be repeated where there is a real threat.

“Flying the two missions together will greatly magnify the overall knowledge return. Hera will, in fact, gather essential data to turn this one-off experiment into an asteroid deflection technique applicable to other asteroids,” states Carnelli

The NASA and ESA teams will meet from September 11–13 and share the progress of the two AIDA spacecraft and the smaller LICIACube nano-spacecraft.

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