Planetary scientists push for unique asteroid deflection mission

ESA/NASA mission would smash spacecraft into asteroid to change its trajectory

landing on an asteroid

European Space Agency AIM mission

Credit: European Space Agency

Planetary scientists got together this week in Berlin express support for the future European/NASA asteroid redirect mission to develop technology that one day might prevent the Earth from being smacked by a destructive asteroid.

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Proponents are trying to garner worldwide support for the mission pointing to the European Space Administration ministerial conference in Luzern next month where the decision will be made whether or not to fund the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). AIM is part of an over-arching collaborative effort with NASA known as theAsteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

NASA describes AIDA as the “first demonstration of the kinetic impact technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. AIDA’s primary objective is to demonstrate, and to measure the effects of, a kinetic impact on a small asteroid. Its target is the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos, which consists of a primary body approximately 800 meters across, and a secondary body (or moonlet) whose 150-meter size is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose a more common hazard to Earth.

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“During the mission NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft will deliberately crash itself into the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6 km/s, with the aid of an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software. The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, enough to be measured using telescopes on Earth. By targeting the small moonlet in a binary system, the AIDA mission plan makes these precise measurements possible and ensures that there is no chance the impact could inadvertently create a hazard to Earth,” NASA said.

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The AIM component of the mission is to simultaneously with DART’s impact, gather all the technical data as DART strikes the moonlet, while also deploying two CubeSats for additional data gathering. It also includes a microlander called Mascot-2  that is expected to measure the interior of the moonlet.

“AIM’s network of mothership, lander and CubeSats in deep space will be a world first, paving the way for new exploration architectures. AIM will also demonstrate novel technology, enabling the spacecraft to navigate autonomously around the asteroid as a self-driving spacecraft,” the ESA stated.

This unique double mission calls for the launch of ESA’s AIM spacecraft in October 2020, leading to a rendezvous with the Didymos system in May 2022. NASA’s DART spacecraft will launch in late December 2020 and intercept Didymos’ moonlet in early October 2022, when the Didymos system is within 11 million kilometers of Earth, enabling observations by ground-based telescopes and planetary radar.

Funding and development for both operations is only in preliminary stages and that is in part why the proponents of the mission this week drafted a letter in support of AIM and said that over 100 scientists have signed it so far.

The letter says in part: “Of the near-Earth objects (NEOs) so far discovered, there are more than 1700 asteroids currently considered hazardous. Unlike other natural disasters, this is one we know how to predict and potentially prevent with early discovery. As such, it is crucial to our knowledge and understanding of asteroids to determine whether a kinetic impactor is able to deflect the orbit of such a small body, in case Earth is threatened. This is what AIDA will help us assess.”

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