Of all the natural disasters that can strike life on Earth, it is asteroid impacts that can destroy life as we know it.
Just as the dinosaurs met their fate with a large asteroid some 66 million years ago, humanity would be in serious trouble if such an event were to occur.
Fortunately, scientists are building a picture of near-Earth asteroids that could one day give us problems.
Finding asteroids is only the first piece of the puzzle, but scientists also have some ideas on how to avoid potential collisions in the future.
Two new missions launched by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are set to test a method for deflecting asteroids approaching Earth.
NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission will launch sometime after November 24 this year, and the spacecraft will arrive in the Didymos asteroid system, 11 million kilometers from Earth, in about a year.
There it will crash into the lunar star Didyma, a smaller rock orbiting the asteroid.
Is it safe to shoot a near-Earth asteroid off course during a test? According to Professor Alan Fitzsimmons of the Research Center for Astrophysics at Queen’s University Belfast, this is true.
“The smart method that the NASA DART team has chosen is to take an asteroid that can pass close to the Earth and then target its moon because the moon is moving around the larger asteroid as the asteroid orbits the sun,” said he is Euronews.
“So we’re going to try to move the asteroid’s moon, and that will just change the moon’s orbit around the asteroid and have little to no effect on the big asteroid itself. So it’s completely safe.”
The ESA mission, Hera, will then track how DART has affected the movement of the moon. This will inform the researchers of the possibility of knocking larger stones off course if the need arises.
Professor Fitzsimmons, speaking on the mission on the occasion of World Asteroid Day (Wednesday, June 30), says it’s like playing “space billiards.”
“When you hit this asteroid on our spacecraft, it will move slightly in the opposite direction. We now know that this should work, but we don’t know exactly how far the asteroid will move. And so it’s the goal of space missions to measure how far we can move an asteroid,” he says.
According to Professor Fitzsimmons, this will be the first planetary defense practice undertaken by mankind.