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NASA and Others are About to Shoot an Asteroid

NASA and others are About to Shoot an Asteroid

To test a new planetary defense system known as AIDA, NASA is planning to shoot an asteroid to see if its trajectory can be altered.

If an asteroid suddenly appeared in our sky on a collision course with Earth, our options in stopping it are very limited. Sure, we can launch all the Bruce Willises we want at it, maybe even throw a few Ben Affleck’s into the mix, but assuming the asteroid is big enough to strike the Earth your best bet would probably be to whip out your bucket list and start crossing off items as quickly as possible.

Despite what you may have seen in movies, there is currently no set plan on how to stop an incoming asteroid. There are, however, a lot of theories that NASA and others would like to test.

NASA is currently working with the European Space Agency, Observatoire de la Cote d’Azure (OCA), and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) on the “Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment” (AIDA). The goal is to test what is known as the “kinetic impact technique,” which basically means that the groups want to shoot an asteroid with a spacecraft in the hopes of altering its trajectory just enough that it will pass by Earth rather than smacking us into extinction.

AIDA is a dual-mission concept, featuring two spacecraft – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), and the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). The DART Mission is known as Phase A, while AIM is called Phase B1. In order to properly test the kinetic impact technique, both will need to be launched and work together. It is a complex and global plan, but it is well within our current level of technology.

To help test the asteroid defense theory, AIDA is targeting a binary, near-Earth asteroid known as Didymos. The first of the two binary object, Didymos A, is 2,559 feet in size, while Didymos B is 525 feet. The AIM mission would send a spacecraft to the asteroids first, where it would orbit them and collect as much data as possible to transmit back to Earth. The DART spacecraft would then strike Didymos B at a pre-determined point in the hopes that the impact might nudge it slightly.

The reason for targeting a binary asteroid is that they are easier to track and measure any results, and while the smaller asteroid may shift its position a bit if successful, the larger body will ensure their orbit around the sun won’t change. If anyone still has trouble defining irony, testing a method to stop asteroids hitting Earth that itself causes an asteroid to hit Earth would be a fairly good example.

“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” said investigation co-lead Andy Cheng of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “Since we don’t know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid. With DART, we can show how to protect Earth from an asteroid strike with a kinetic impactor by knocking the hazardous object into a different flight path that would not threaten the planet.”

The idea has been floating around for a few years now, but the groups involved are confident enough in the theory that they are moving from concept to preliminary design phase. NASA’s current budget does not include launching an expensive spacecraft at an asteroid and slamming into it, but Didymos will fly near Earth in 2022 and 2024, so there is time to come up with a mission plan that Congress may approve. The other agencies will need to follow suit, but NASA would lead the way.

NASA has a very simple video below showing a craft hitting an asteroid. It doesn’t really tell us anything, but it’s fun. If you want to know more details, check out ESA’s video further down.


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