Asteroid deflection mission seeks smashing ideas

Asteroid deflection mission seeks smashing ideas
AIDA mission concept.

(—A space rock several hundred metres across is heading towards our planet and the last-ditch attempt to avert a disaster – an untested mission to deflect it – fails. This fictional scene of films and novels could well be a reality one day. But what can space agencies do to ensure it works? 

ESA is appealing for research ideas to help guide the development of a US–European asteroid deflection mission now under study.

Concepts are being sought for both ground- and space-based investigations, seeking improved understanding of the physics of very high-speed collisions involving both man-made and natural objects in space. 

AIDA: double mission to a double asteroid

ESA's call will help to guide future studies linked to the Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission – AIDA.

This innovative but low-budget transatlantic partnership involves the joint operations of two small spacecraft sent to intercept a binary asteroid.

Asteroid deflection mission seeks smashing ideas
Asteroid Impact Monitor design.

The first Double Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, designed by the US Johns Hopkins Laboratory will collide with the smaller of the two asteroids.

Meanwhile, ESA's Monitor (AIM) craft will survey these bodies in detail, before and after the collision.

The impact should change the pace at which the objects spin around each other, observable from Earth. But AIM's close-up view will 'ground-truth' such observations.

"The advantage is that the spacecraft are simple and independent," says Andy Cheng of Johns Hopkins, leading the AIDA project on the US side. "They can both complete their primary investigation without the other one."

But by working in tandem, the quality and quantity of results will increase greatly, explains Andrés Gálvez, ESA AIDA study manager: "Both missions become better when put together – getting much more out of the overall investment.

"And the vast amounts of data coming from the joint mission should help to validate various theories, such as our impact modelling."

Last week the 325 m Apophis asteroid passed close to Earth, and in mid-February the recently discovered 2012 DA14 space rock will pass closer than many satellites.

ESA is seeking to assess the impact hazard from Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) through its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme.

"AIDA offers a promising platform for the test and demonstration of different deflection methods," adds Detlef Koschny, managing SSA's NEO effort. "It is therefore important to ask the users early on what they'd like to do with a mission like this."

The science of hypervelocity

For some time, ESA and its international partners have been studying missions to investigate asteroid deflection techniques.

The most popular concept involves a 'hypervelocity impact' – a collision at multiple kilometres per second, at such high speed that materials do not just shatter car-crash-style but are vaporised, turning even metal and solid rock into the hot soup of charged particles called plasma.

Such impact testing would help assess if asteroid deflection could be accomplished.

Increased knowledge of hypervelocity impacts would also have wider uses. Planetary scientists would gain fresh insight into our Solar System's violent early history, including clues to the origin of life and the magnitude of extinction events.

And in practical terms, growing levels of orbital debris increases the risk of highly destructive hypervelocity impacts with critical satellite infrastructure or humans working in orbit. Studying this kind of impact will help to quantify the hazard and inspire protection techniques.

The AIDA Call for Experiment Ideas is being released on 1 February at . For further information, see … _D_AIDA_Call_For_Exp

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Jan 16, 2013
Why use impacts? Wouldn't repeated swing-by maneuvers be more efficient (over the long run) in diverting its course (tractor principle)?
Seems also a lot easier to calculate than the uncertainties of an impact (uncertain material composition, possibly misjudged angle of impact if the asteroid surface isn't smooth - i.e. the chance that you hit with a glancing blow that will not deflect as intended, inability to do it over if something goes wrong, ... )

Jan 16, 2013
It all depends on how much time you have to make the needed change in trajectory, the less direct you have to be. If we find something inbound from the outer Oort cloud with only months to reach the body in the first place, you better believe we are going to go for an over the top kinetic energy solution.

Jan 17, 2013
Assuming that we discover object when we still have time, we can try subtle approaches. However, if we have really to hurry then as our last resort would be nukes left. (the way of delivering the highest amount of energy that's accessible with contemporary tech.) Yes, I know there is a risk that object would split in uncontrollable way, and that's exactly what should be tested.

And such project should be done as international one to avoid any risk of turning it in to arms race.

Jan 17, 2013
Nuclear weapons have been dismissed because a breakup wouldn't help. I've wondered about surrounding the asteroid in a geodesic pattern of nukes simultaneously going off to pulverize it. Not a new idea, that's basically one method of how to achieve tremendous compression to fissionable material to set off a nuke.

Jan 17, 2013
Nuclear weapons are also pretty ineffective. the vast destructive power you see on Earth is due to the atmospheric shock front - and that isn't something you have in space.

The deepest crater from a surface nuclear test is about 100meters deep (in desert plain conditions). When we talk about killer asteroids we're talking about 1km diameter and up of unknown composition - possibly metallic but certainly more dense than compacted sand. A nuke isn't even going to dent that.

Jan 24, 2013
Perhaps this can clean out some space junk on the way through. If we can equip it with a huge net, it could sweep out unwanted debris in orbit around earth.

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