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YOUR Help Needed to Hurt an Asteroid




Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Refine an
asteroid deflection plan that will attempt to bring a little piece of
Armageddon to a space rock in 2022. This is the message from the
European Space Agency (ESA) when details of a joint US/Europe plan were
announced last week.

The idea is simple. In 2022, a binary asteroid called Didymos
will be minding its own business, gliding past Earth at a safe distance
of 6.5 million miles. But the two-spacecraft Asteroid Impact and
Deflection (AIDA) mission will be on an intercept course to give one of
the asteroids a very bad day. The reason? To understand how we might
deal with a hypothetical asteroid that’s on a collision course with
Earth in the future.

PICTURES: Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid

65803 Didymos consists of a primary asteroid measuring 800
meters across and a smaller asteroid satellite measuring 150 meters
across. The smaller satellite orbits the primary every 11.9 hours. The
plan, according to ESA, is to smash one of the AIDA spacecraft — called
the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) impactor, developed by the
U.S. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory — into the 150 meter-wide
satellite asteroid. The second AIDA spacecraft — called the Asteroid
Impact Monitor (AIM), developed by ESA — will observe the interplanetary
collision from afar.

As noted by Ars Technica, the 150 meter-wide target asteroid has an estimated mass of 3×109kg
(3 million metric tons). The kinetic impactor will likely have a mass
of around 300 kilograms (a little smaller than the NASA Deep Impact
spacecraft that collided with Comet Tempel 1 in 2005).
A hypervelocity impact between the DART impactor and asteroid certainly
wont “blow up” the target, but it should generate a big flash —
impactor and impact zone will be instantly vaporized, generating a very
hot plasma and, undoubtedly, a whopping crater.

ANALYSIS: Nuking Asteroids: It’s a Megaton Of Fun!

As the impact will be within the observational capabilities of
ground based and space based telescopes, it is hoped valuable science
can be done. The AIM spacecraft will remain close to Didymos before and
after the impact so we can better understand whether or not a kinetic
impactor can have a significant effect on changing the binary asteroid’s
orbital period.

“The advantage is that the spacecraft are simple and
independent,” said Andy Cheng of Johns Hopkins, AIDA project leader.
“They can both complete their primary investigation without the other
one.”

Also, by combining the efforts of two independent spacecraft,
the quality of the mission will be greatly increased. “Both missions
become better when put together — getting much more out of the overall
investment,” said Andrés Gálvez, ESA AIDA mission manager. “And the vast
amounts of data coming from the joint mission should help to validate
various theories, such as our impact modelling.”

However, the details of the mission have yet to be finalized,
so AIDA scientists are asking for suggestions as to how to better
develop the mission. A formal call for AIDA experiment proposals will be
made via the ESA’s Near Earth Objects website on Feb 1, 2013.

If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest strapping a nuclear
warhead to the DART impactor… but that would breach some pretty heavy
space treaties, so I won’t be submitting a formal proposal. What would you suggest to the AIDA team?

Image: Artist impression of the AIDA mission. Credit: ESA


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