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Space agency to smash 660-pound spacecraft into near-Earth asteroid

The European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to tackle a seemingly impossible task, the deflection of a near-Earth asteroid in 2022. The ESA will conduct a live test run on 65803 Didymos, which is 800 meters across. Unlike asteroid Apophis, 65803 Didymos is not an asteroid that’s likely to impact Earth, meaning that the ESA’s test run will not be an Armageddon-like effort to save mankind from impending doom. As DVICE points out, the ESA is simply going to attempt to alter the trajectory of a near-Earth asteroid to determine that if it had been on deadly collision course with Earth, the impact would have made it miss.

The study, which the ESA is calling the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) project, will be a collaboration between the U.S. and European governments. The ESA plans to send two small spacecraft into space in 2020 meet up with 65803 Didymos and another smaller asteroid, which is 150 meters in diameter, according to The Verge. The first spacecraft, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, will smash itself into the smaller of the two asteroids, while the other spacecraft, the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) vehicle will record the results of the collision.

The Verge notes that the AIDA team believes that the DART’s collision can change the course of the smaller asteroid by between 0.5 percent and 1 percent. DVICE adds that 660-pound spacecraft will collide with the asteroid at 14,000 miles per hour. Astronomers hope that data from the AIM vehicle will help scientists better understand the usefulness of such missions in the event that an asteroid actually threatens mankind.

The ESA is currently reaching out to the public to help guide the advancement of the AIDA project. The space agency is seeking concepts for ground- and space-based observations to improve its understanding of the physics of extremely high-speed collisions involving spacecraft and natural objects, such as asteroids, in space.

The ESA believes that the collision should alter the pace at which the asteroids spin around each other, observable from Earth. The space agency notes that AIM’s close-up view of the impact will “ground-truth” such observations. Andy Cheng of Johnson Hopkins says that both spacecraft can finish their primary investigation without the other one due to the fact that the spacecraft are “simple and independent.” Data from the mission should help scientists validate various theories on spacecraft-natural object collisions.

The AIDA project is not the first time that a spacecraft has been intentionally smashed into a space object, according to NASA. Deep Impact, a NASA Discovery Mission, was the first space mission to look beneath the surface of a comet, revealing the secrets of its interior. Instruments onboard the doomed spacecraft, as well as ground-based telescopes and space-based observations, recorded information on the impact, debris and interior material of the comet. The primary difference between an asteroid and a comet is that asteroids are made up of metals and rocky material, while comets are comprised of ice, dusty and rocky material, according to Universe Today.

Do you think that a 660-pound spacecraft will be able to alter the smaller asteroid’s trajectory?