NASA and the European Space Agency begin design work this month on a mission that amounts to a real-life version of the classic game "Asteroids": After a lander settles down on a passing pair of space rocks, a second satellite will be fired at them like a giant bullet. But this is no game — a great deal of data can be gathered from such an event, and if it works as hoped, the technique may even save the world one day.
ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission is scheduled to commence in late 2020, with an orbiter and lander making a rendezvous with a binary asteroid system known as Didymos, which will pass within 7 million miles of Earth in 2022. After touching down on the smaller of the two objects, known as Didymoon, the lander will do science (much like the Philae comet lander) until NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) satellite makes contact — at roughly 13,000 miles per hour.
The ejecta from this high-speed impact will be scrutinized closely — it's not every day you get to see the inside of an asteroid. And other satellites in the vicinity will watch for any change in Didymoon's trajectory. Should it be deflected significantly, this method could be used to redirect objects on a collision course with Earth.
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," explained ESA mission manager Ian Carnelli in a news release.
"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."
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