Forget Ben Affleck – US, Euro boffins to SMASH spaceship into asteroid

NASA, ESA get to work after finishing Armageddon DVD

Ben Affleck

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working out how to use spacecraft to stop asteroids smashing into planets – Earth in particular.

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The Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission is composed of two separate spacecraft: ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) and NASA-led Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The target is the asteroid 65803 Didymos, which is a binary system consisting of one 750-metre space rock with a 175 metre-wide chunk of debris orbiting it.

"To protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts, we need to understand asteroids much better – what they are made of, their structure, origins, and how they respond to collisions," Patrick Michel, the lead of the AIM Investigation Team told the European Planetary Science Congress.

"AIDA will be the first mission to study an asteroid binary system, as well as the first to test whether we can deflect an asteroid through an impact with a spacecraft. Asteroids represent different stages in the rocky road to planetary formation, so offer fascinating snapshots into the Solar System's history."

If all goes to plan, and the rest of the funding comes through, the AIM spacecraft will take off in October 2020 and then get into orbit around Didymos by May 2022 and begin mapping out the target. It'll also deploy a lander onto the larger body to scan the asteroid's geology.

In July 2021 the DART probe will lift off and head to its target. The 330kg spacecraft is pretty basic, just a telescope and communications array powered by solar panels and a lot of dead weight.

By the time DART gets to Didymos it'll be traveling at 6.25 kilometers per second and will slam into the smaller moon. In the meantime AIM will have moved to a safe distance to observe the collision between mankind's tool and nature.

The impact isn't going to change the moon's orbit too much – the astronomers think it'll only perturb the body's orbit by about one per cent and it'll still stay in orbit around the main asteroid body. But it will tell us a lot about the asteroid itself and how they react to impacts, which could be vital to the future (or not) of humanity. ®

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