Europe, US Collaborate To Intercept Asteroid

European Space Agency officials announced Friday a joint European/US plan to intercept an asteroid 6.5 million miles away, practice in case humanity ever needs to pull off such a defense of its own planet.

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission will involve two small spacecraft intercepting a binary asteroid named Didymos, which is projected to launch past Earth in 2022. Didymos consists not of one asteroid but two that rotate around each other as they orbit the sun. One of the rocks is over four times larger than the other.

The spacecraft is dubbed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test and was developed by researchers at John Hopkins University. The hope is that the 660 pound spacecraft will knock the 500-foot-wide asteroid off its regular orbit. If successful, Earth will be one step closer to being able to defend itself from a potentially catastrophic asteroid collision.

The need for such a system was emphasized on February 15 when a 55 foot meteor exploded in Russia, injuring 1,200 people. A 130 foot asteroid passed close by Earth mere hours later.

“The recent Russian meteor and, on the same day, our planet’s close encounter with an even larger chunk of celestial debris underline the need for us to learn more about these high-speed space rocks,” the European Space Agency said.

ESA officials are also seeking proposals for both ground-based and space-based experiments on the physics of high-speed collisions between objects like a spacecraft and an asteroid. Researchers have until March to propose ideas.

[Image via the European Space Agency]