Why NASA and ESA are trying to crash a spaceship into an asteroid

The international space community has identified a target to help deflect asteroids away from Earth.

European and American space officials have launched plans to deflect asteroids away from the Earth, in hopes of better protecting the planet and of understanding the way asteroids form and operate.

Or, as Quartz puts it, “NASA and ESA are forming a super space team to prevent armageddon.”

The project, called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) Mission, was first announced in 2012. But it wasn’t until this year that officials declared a target for its studies: a near-Earth binary asteroid named 65803 Didymos.

This system, whose name is Greek for "twin," contains two asteroids: a small one (“Didymoon”) orbiting its larger counterpart (“Didymos”).

NASA's and the European Space Agency's schedules has been synchronized, but each mission is “fully independent,” ESA says on its website. “Therefore if for some reason one of the spacecraft cannot contribute to the joint campaign, the other would still be able to achieve its individual mission goals.”

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) will launch first in October 2020. These will examine the structure of the asteroids and observe as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft joins two years later.

Then comes DART’s crash – “straight into the asteroid moon [Didymoon] at about 6 km/s,” said ESA. “DART’s shifting of Didymoon’s orbit would mark the first time humanity has altered the dynamics of a Solar System body in a measurable way.”

What, one might ask, is the point of all this?

Perhaps the most poignant example comes from 2013 Chelyabinsk, Russia, when a meteor explosion described as “a tiny asteroid” tore through the city, injuring as many as 1,000 people. While such high numbers of casualties were unprecedented, “the risk of asteroid impacts ... may be 10 times greater than previously thought,” SPACE.com later reported.

“Our Earth is constantly bombarded by small asteroids that try to penetrate its protective atmosphere,” ESA explains. “The vast majority don't get through, but larger asteroids could pose a threat.”

The international mission hopes to “provide a baseline for planning any future planetary defense strategies,” the agency says, “offering insight into the kind of force needed to shift the orbit of any incoming asteroid, and better understand how the technique could be applied if a real threat were to occur.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.