To Divert an Asteroid, ESA and NASA Plan on Smashing It with a Satellite

Watch AIDA researchers explain the logistics of punching asteroids to protect Mother Earth.

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Sep 23 2014, 9:00am

The AIDA team with their AIDA dream. Image: YouTube/ESA

Asteroid impacts have been fodder for science fiction plots for decades, but what would our response be if we were actually faced with one? This question has become a lot more topical recently, in the wake of the massive Chelyabinsk airburst and the near-constant parade of close calls.

Given the inevitability of the threat, you'd think we'd have assembled a dream team to tackle it. But news broke last week that NASA's Near Earth Objects program is mismanaged and way behind schedule in its goal to to catalogue 90 percent of hazardous space rocks by 2020, according to an audit. So if there's an asteroid out there with our name on it, we best get ready for a planetary black eye, because the odds are we wouldn't see it coming in the first place. Thumbs down.

But it's not all bad news. Today, AIDA—the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment—released a new video about its plan to save the world Bruce-Willis-style. AIDA is a joint project between several space agencies, including ESA and NASA, with a goal as simple as it is epic: send a probe to the asteroid Didymos, and hammer it into a new trajectory.

The mission would be the first attempt to artificially nudge an asteroid out of its orbital path, clarifying whether that's a workable defense strategy against hazardous NEOs. I'll let the minds behind AIDA speak for themselves, in this ambiguously 80s video summary.

For those in need of a tl;dr, the proposed spacecraft will have two parts, made separately by NASA and ESA. NASA's in charge of a "kinetic impactor" called DART, which will hit Didymos at a speed of six kilometers a second, about nine times faster than a bullet from an AK-47. ESA, in turn, will build an observatory probe called AIM designed to catalogue everything before and after the impact.

Incidentally, how perfect is it that the European component is a studious observer, while the American one is destined to straight-up Hulk Smash a space rock? Cultural stereotypes can apparently extend to spacecraft.

Unfortunately, the project still conspicuously lacks a development and launch schedule, so there's no telling if it will come to fruition. But the disappointing news about NASA's asteroid protection program, combined with legitimate public concern over how much preparation we need to do, will hopefully boost interest in AIDA. After all, it would be cathartic to impact an asteroid for once, instead of worrying about one impacting us.