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Scientists push for 2020 launch of asteroid deflection test

A group of scientists recently got together to figure out what would happen in the event of an unavoidable asteroid impact, but just because you plan for the worst doesn’t mean you can’t hope for the best. The ESA and NASA are pushing for a 2020 mission to test technologies that could help us deflect an object before it smacks into Earth. We don’t know how many large, Earth-threatening asteroids are out there in the depths of space, but it’s not a matter of if one will hit Earth. It’s a matter of when.

The joint European-US Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) is still in the planning stages, but it could launch in 2020. The ESA will decide in several weeks whether or not it will move forward with the mission. Thus, experts in planetary science and space exploration have issued a letter in support of the mission.

AIDA is actually composed of two missions. On the European side is the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). Meanwhile, NASA is prepping a mission known as Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). Both missions would fly probes to the binary asteroid system Didymos. These objects are set to pass within 6.8 million miles of Earth in 2022. That gives scientists an unique opportunity to test asteroid redirection technologies in real life rather than in simulations.

Didymos is the name of the larger of the two objects in this system. It’s about 2,600 feet (800m) in diameter. The smaller orbiting asteroid is known as Didymoon and is a mere 560 feet (170m) across. The AIM mission would head for Didymoon to deploy a lander and await the arrival of the DART probe. DART’s mission is to hit Didymoon with an impactor at high speed. AIM will then monitor the effect this has on Didymoon’s orbit around Didymos. This is the sort of technique humanity might use to deflect a potentially dangerous object, assuming it was found far enough in advance.

There are a lot of variables to be accounted for before the AIDA missions can be launched. For example, astronomers have not been able to characterize the surface of Didymoon due to its small size. The lander has to be designed to cope with extremely low gravity — the escape velocity of Didymoon is just 0.13 mph. You might recall the harpoon system that was supposed to tether the Philae lander to comet 67P failed. The stakes are even higher here. If the AIM lander bounces off the surface, it would float away.

The authors of the letter of support are hopeful it can make a difference. There’s no margin for error here; the mission has to launch in 2020 for a Didymos rendezvous to be possible. That means final mission design needs to start soon.

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