NASA is sending a spacecraft crashing into an asteroid to see if technology can handle hitting such an entity, instead of blasting a hole in it.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is set to make a first impact on 25 December to test how technology can be used to collect kinetic energy from an asteroid and then deflect it to a different orbit, according to the Centre for Science & International Security, a US think tank.
In order to succeed, the spacecraft will encounter a space rock roughly half the size of a football field that is five kilometres (three miles) wide.
The asteroid is called 5201 Achirho, or Earth 1, and it will be traveling at a speed of 100,000 kilometres per hour.
The spacecraft is named the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, and will launch into space in August 2020.
It will use radar observations to gather information on the asteroid, including its terrain and shape. However, it will not touch the surface, leaving it intact.
Arm will have to be ejected from the asteroid in order to extract energy from it, referred to as a kinetic impact. It will crash into the asteroid at 10,000 miles per hour to see if it can break apart.
“For planetary defence, asteroids pose a single greatest, single greatest threat, but it is less clear whether they pose a risk of direct impact of the Earth itself,” said the paper.
“The avoidance of a major planetary impact is no small feat.”
Arm is expected to create enough energy to generate 20 megawatts of power – enough to provide power for 20,000 households.
According to the paper, the impact tests have been planned for over 20 years.
“In 1992, the small-satellite EMST test programme at NASA launched eight small satellites to collect meteorite and other meteoroid space material and to advance mitigation strategies against asteroids,” the paper read.
“NASA has been systematically refining and accelerating kinetic impact test plans for about 20 years.”
ARM will spend 30 months on its planned mission. The spacecraft will travel to its target asteroid, orbit it and then begin its actual detection mission.
The team of scientists will have to guess whether the asteroid will break up into dust and asteroids and will have to destroy it in order to learn from it.
“Within two to three months, the agency plans to send the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on its first orbital flight around the 1,640-metre asteroid 5201 Achirho,” the paper read.
ARM will also determine what kind of material could have been recovered from the asteroid, in addition to atmospheric effects, including how big a solar flare the asteroid could be exposed to.
The researchers will also continue their research, including what shape the rock could be in and what damage would be inflicted if an asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
ARM will relay its findings to Nasa’s Deep Space Network – a listening station in Goldstone, California, and Earth orbital stations.
An asteroid impact triggered by a ‘thrill-seeking’ shot would be nothing short of spectacular.
The magazine Science Daily reported in 2008 that in August 1908, a meteorite impacting in Russia near Chelyabinsk was reported to have injured about 1,500 people.
The debris caused widespread fires and injuries, with the explosion having created powerful fires which blocked sunlight for almost 10 days.
The sudden drop in light hit engines at cosmonaut landing sites.
The falling debris created a powerful shockwave that crashed through the ship’s solar panels, which in turn generated heat.
The force from the energy of the shockwave struck the space craft’s antennae, effectively cooling the vessel as well as cooling the air inside it.
Titanium steel from the ship’s fuselage had to be melted to prevent damage to other parts of the ship, which eventually sank.