So, you want to save humanity from the same fate that wiped out the dinosaurs…? Maybe you’ve got a great idea for intercepting and/or deflecting a threat of the asteroid-speeding-towards-Earth kind? Well, first, there are a great many details and logistics to consider when one is talking about any intentional contact between a man-made object and a space-based, natural one — especially one that will leave an impact crater (on the asteroid, hopefully).
Accordingly, The European Space Agency (ESA) is seeking research ideas to help prepare, or lay the ground-work for, a proposed joint US-European “asteroid deflection” mission.
It’s a fairly ‘Big Science’ mission that requires extensive research before it ever gets off the ground. ESA is thus seeking proposals for both ground and space-based investigations that will help our understanding of what is likely to happen when a man-made object collides with and asteroid.
The Proposed Mission
Targeting a binary asteroid system, the proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission will (as envisioned) consist of two space probes: one that would collide with the smaller of the two asteroids (the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART), and a second (the Asteroid Impact Monitor, or AIM) which would survey the asteroids — pre and post collision — in greater detail.
As a backup, the DART mission will include continuous, ground-based observations to measure the impact (“deflection”) of the targeted asteroid, in the event that the companion probe (AIM) fails somehow. This will insure that any planned collision will produce useful data that can be analyzed and used to inform subsequent asteroid impact missions (or second chances).
Ideally, the two probes would collect and return data on such variables as momentum transfer and the characteristics of the impact crater (and presumably, debris scattering; see the author note, below)
The AIM probe is being designed and engineered by ESA, while the DART probe is being designed and engineered by the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory in the US (with support from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and JPL). That’s impressive support.
Not the First Asteroid Intercept Mission Ever Proposed
In case you were wondering why it has taken so long to plan such a mission…There has been, in fact, at least one earlier (planned) mission.
The current AIDA design project is actually the “successor” to ESA’s 2005 proposal called Don Quixote (as in “tilting at windmills” aka asteroids, presumably) whose designs also included two probes — fittingly named Sancho (an orbiter probe) and Hidalgo (the impactor probe) — but which was intended to target a single asteroid of approximately 500 meters in diameter.
The earlier Don Quixote mission was to be built back in 2006, but its funding was never approved. Perhaps this joint US-EURO mission will have better luck in these times of “economic austerity”. After all, asteroids never sleep.
Author Note: One can’t help but imagine that any planned impact of an asteroid — being an inexact thing — could potentially result in many smaller asteroid “chunks” being set loose in space, with some of these perhaps deflected towards the Earth (or perhaps high Earth orbit where our satellites reside). I am sure others have considered this possibility, but just in case…may I suggest an investigation of this possibility (due to impact), and possible back-up remedies? Thank you. — a concerned inhabitant of Earth
Watch this cool animation of the planned AIDA project:
Some source material for this post came from the Citizens in Space blog ‘ESA, Johns Hopkins Plan First Asteroid Intercept Mission’
Top photo:(243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the first satellite of an asteroid to be discovered); NASA