ESA, NASA Prepare to Blast Asteroid to Kingdom Come

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission will provide before-and-after data on the ‘Didymoon’ asteroid, set to be struck by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe in late 2022. A plume is expected to be triggered by the highly energetic collision. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)
ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission will provide before-and-after data on the ‘Didymoon’ asteroid, set to be struck by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe in late 2022. A plume is expected to be triggered by the highly energetic collision. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)

PARIS (ESA PR) — If an asteroid were spotted headed towards Earth, what could humanity do about it? ESA’s latest mission is part of a larger international effort to find out.

This month marked the start of preliminary design work on ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission, or AIM. Intended to demonstrate technologies for future deep-space missions, AIM will also be the Agency’s very first investigation of planetary defence techniques.

Launched in October 2020, AIM will travel to a binary asteroid system – the paired Didymos asteroids, which will come a comparatively close 11 million km to Earth in 2022. The 800 m-diameter main body is orbited by a 170 m moon, informally called ‘Didymoon’.

The paired Didymos asteroids are the targets for the international Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment mission, of which ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) is a part. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)
The paired Didymos asteroids are the targets for the international Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment mission, of which ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) is a part. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)

This smaller body is AIM’s focus: the spacecraft will perform high-resolution visual, thermal and radar mapping of the moon to build detailed maps of its surface and interior structure.

AIM will also put down a lander – ESA’s first touchdown on a small body since Rosetta’s Philae landed on a comet last November.

Two or more CubeSats will also be dispatched from the mothership to gather other scientific data in the vicinity of the moon. AIM’s findings will be returned by high-capacity laser link to ESA’s Optical Ground Station on Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

AIM and Didymos binary system. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)
AIM and Didymos binary system. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)

AIM should gather a rich scientific bounty – gaining valuable insights into the formation of our Solar System – but these activities will also set the stage for a historic event to come.

For AIM is also Europe’s contribution to the larger Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment mission: AIDA. In late 2022, the NASA-led part of AIDA will arrive: the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, probe will approach the binary system – then crash straight into the asteroid moon at about 6 km/s.

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission will use high-capacity laser communications to send its scientific data back to ESA’s Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, demonstrating the potential of optical communications for deep-space missions. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)
ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission will use high-capacity laser communications to send its scientific data back to ESA’s Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, demonstrating the potential of optical communications for deep-space missions. (Credit: ESA-Science Office)

“AIM will be watching closely as DART hits Didymoon,” explains Ian Carnelli, managing the mission for ESA. “In the aftermath, it will perform detailed before-and-after comparisons on the structure of the body itself, as well as its orbit, to characterise DART’s kinetic impact and its consequences.

“The results will allow laboratory impact models to be calibrated on a large-scale basis, to fully understand how an asteroid would react to this kind of energy. This will shed light on the role the ejecta plume will play – a fundamental part in the energy transfer and under scientific debate for over two decades.

“In addition, DART’s shifting of Didymoon’s orbit will mark the first time humanity has altered the dynamics of the Solar System in a measurable way.

“It will also give us a baseline for planning any future planetary defence strategies. We will gain 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.”

  • windbourne

    wow. now add this data along with ARM and we might be getting somewhere.
    I find it interesting that so many on this site know and speak about the threat from asteroids, yet, scream against ARM.

  • That’s just what the solar system needs, more space debris. Have these people no shame? This stuff can be simulated to a high degree of fidelity.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Nonsense, how the heck do you simulated striking an asteroid without knowing its interior composition and structure.

    Besides that all comets and asteroids releases dust and volatiles as they approaches the Sun.

  • Paul451

    Debris is an issue in Earth orbit. Not solar orbit.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Deflecting an asteroid is potentially the most useful thing to come from space technology. Granted, satellite communication, weather prediction, GPS navigation etc. might be sexier in an everyday situation, but the day we really need to deflect a civilization threatening asteroid it’ll be really neat.

  • It will be an issue in Didymos orbit if anyone ever wants to visit this place again. Have you no shame? Have you no sense of decency?

    This is an idiotic experiment.

  • I think the issue is the man made kinetic impact in the Didymos gravity well. This is not a comet passing near the sun, this is an asteroid and a kinetic impact is going to create a huge mess of trajectories.

    Have you no shame, sir, have you no sense of decency?

    Or are you just another idiot who can’t write code?

  • Matt

    What about deflecting as a weapon?

  • Gary Church

    An excellent point actually used to argue against deploying any such deflection technology as it could just as well be used to deflect an asteroid or comet towards Earth. The first time I read an objection to planetary protection deflection technology several years ago I was……shocked. We may actually be too stupid to survive.

  • Gary Church

    You are ridiculous. Space is pretty big- your complaint is bizarre and completely invalid.

  • Gary Church

    Your brain is an idiotic experiment Elifritz. This kind of experiment could help save planet Earth from an apocalypse. Really.

  • Gary Church

    Gosh, just stop. Elifritz you are really out of it. You are basically complaining about dropping sprinkling a few grains of salt in an Olympic swimming pool and it possibly getting in someones eyes.

  • Gary Church

    ARM has absolutely and unequivocally no value concerning asteroid or comet deflection. So many people have thrown the B.S. flag on that propaganda that NASA is not even arguing about it anymore.

  • Gary Church

    You will find many that scream bloody murder at any mention of the asteroid and comet threat. I was excoriated by a popular popular science author who writes for Wired magazine on his discussion board for arguing about the article he wrote trivializing the impact threat. He then deleted the entire conversation. Despite Tunguska and Chelyabinsk and a dozen nuclear yield explosions detected by military sensors in the upper atmosphere over the years, many individuals in the media actively suppress any notion there is a danger. I don’t know why except that it might divert funding or attention from their own pet projects.

    The most effective tool for deflecting an impact threat? The most powerful device ever created of course- the H-Bomb. But you will find people who, incredibly, will argue even that to death. The most visible organization pushing planetary defense- the B612 foundation- wants nothing to do with anything nuclear because they have their own solution in a “gravity tug.” They do not care that bombs will work- they want their gravity tug funded so nuclear is branded as no good and they will not be polite if you have a different view. I know this from experience. Space exploration issues have become a bizarre public discourse battlefield since NewSpace began pushing their business plans.

  • On the contrary, nuking an incoming regionally destructive asteroid is a LAST DITCH EFFORT and requires actually detecting the asteroid, which seems to be way down on their priority list of necessary technologies. If you have to nuke an asteroid, you just nuke it. With detection there are far more effective and less polluting ways to deflect an asteroid.

    I stand by my statement, this experiment is idiotic and amounts to a make work public relations effort to bamboozle the rubes.

  • No. I am complaining about the guaranteed momentum dispersion of the impact ejecta putting large amounts of material in orbit around Didymos space, which will be hazardous for any future visitors, to say nothing about the ejecta deposited into solar orbits, all of which will be highly dispersed. Are they going to track every last piece and compare that to simulations and then try to deduce something about the filling ratio? Not a chance. There are just looking for minute changes in the orbit of the the body itself.

    The entropy cost is far to great to justify this idiotic experiment.

  • Gary Church

    Yes, we don’t want to pollute space. Bizarre.

  • I know, there is no need to safe upper stages and dead satellites, what could possibly go wrong. Space is big!

  • Gary Church

    So childish. Everyone here understands the difference between Earth orbit and deep space. Fool.

  • Gary Church

    The only entropy is in your brain.

  • Asteroids are quite valuable. If we were to drill into one, stuff a comet inside, and send it very close to the sun we could blow it up like a big inflatable space habitat miles across. It could also have nice thick radiation shielding that block nasty cosmic rays and micro-meteors.

  • Yes, that sounds wonderfully nutty, but you need to start small. It might just be easier to colonize Mercury. Mercury has it all.

  • The place to start is the moon. Only after we have a self sufficient industrialized colony on the moon should we spend resources sending people to other planets.