It’ll be Tough to Stop an Asteroid at the Last Minute, but not Impossible

Artist's impression of the DART mission impacting the moonlet Dimorphos. Credit: ESA

On September 26th, 2022, NASA’s Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) made history when it rendezvoused with the asteroid Didymos and impacted with its moonlet, Dimorphos. The purpose was to test the “Kinetic Impact” method, a means of defense against potentially-hazardous asteroids (PHAs) where a spacecraft collides with them to alter their trajectory. Based on follow-up observations, the test succeeded since DART managed to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by 22 minutes. The impact also caused the moonlet to grow a visible tail!

However, as Hollywood loves to remind us, there are scenarios where a planet-killing asteroid gets very close to Earth before we could do anything to stop it. And there is no shortage of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that could become potential threats someday. Hence why space agencies worldwide make it a habit of monitoring them and how close they pass to Earth. According to a new study by a group of satellite experts, it would be possible to build a rapid-response kinetic impactor mission that could rendezvous and deflect a PHA shortly before it collided with Earth.

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NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

Artist's concept of some of the Phase I winners of the 2016 NIAC program. Credit: NASA

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.

This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

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