More than 100 scientists have signed an open letter to support the joint NASA/ESA asteroid deflection mission slated for a 2020 launch. They do so not only because of the necessity of learning whether an attempted deflection will actually succeed but also to stress the importance of the scientific value of such a mission. To be clear, the scientists want to ensure that the asteroid deflection mission is funded.
The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that more than 100 scientists signed onto a published letter arguing for the necessity of the two-part AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment) mission. Besides the study opportunity the mission will provide, it also has been designed to alter the orbit of the asteroid itself to gain needed usable information on deflecting future potentially hazardous asteroids that could pose a catastrophic danger to a city or region, if not to the entire planet.
The letter reads, “Of the near-Earth objects (NEOs) so far discovered, there are more than 1700 asteroids currently considered hazardous. Unlike other natural disasters, this is one we know how to predict and potentially prevent with early discovery. As such, it is crucial to our knowledge and understanding of asteroids to determine whether a kinetic impactor is able to deflect the orbit of such a small body, in case Earth is threatened.”
In fact, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology, the number of near-Earth asteroids (NEA) detected thus far topped 15,000 in October. An NEA is defined as an asteroid which exhibits an orbit that passes to within 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. Of that 15,000 detected, only an estimated 27 percent of the NEAs that are 460 feet (140 meters) and larger have been found. The good news for the planet is that scientists estimate that an estimated 90 percent the larger asteroids, those NEOs that measure 0.6 miles (one kilometer), have been found.
Still, an asteroid roughly the size of a massive skyscraper and headed toward Earth would be worrisome. The AIDA mission would at least provide hope that, if given enough time, the asteroid might be defensively deflected away from a collision course.
But only if the mission is actualized. The letter signed by those 100-plus scientists was penned to help persuade the European Space Agency (ESA)’s council of ministers to provide funding for the mission when they meet in early December.
The AIDA mission to the binary asteroids Didymos and Didymoon is designed in two parts — the first part to be controlled by the ESA, the second by NASA. The ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) will study the two asteroids from its orbit after arriving in 2022. It will then turn its attention to Didymoon as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) collides with it some four months later. That collision is designed to knock the asteroid off course in a technological display that could prove to be life-saving (planet-saving?) one day.
That the Earth needs an effective way to deal with potentially hazardous asteroids should they become an imminent threat is not in question. Although it has been a topic of concern for scientists for decades, a pressing need did not seem to occur to the general populace or to any of the planet’s governing bodies until February 2013, when a meteor streaked through the skies of Russia and detonated with the force of 29 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The Chelyabinsk meteor, as it became known, sent 1,500 people to the hospital and did millions of dollars in damage to buildings in several cities. And it was an object that measured just an estimated 20 meters (66 feet) in diameter prior to its deterioration.
The Didymos primary asteroid is about 800 meters (almost a half mile) in diameter and its moon measures 150 meters (492 feet) in diameter.
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