The two space agencies are preparing to discover if it is possible to nudge a rogue asteroid from its deadly trajectory. The world’s first planetary defence operation hopes to study the effect of colliding with a small “Didymoon” space rock orbiting the Didymos A asteroid.
The joint Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission consists of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DAR) spacecraft, which will slam into the space space rock and ESA’s HERA mission which will proceed to study the impact.
However, the mission is dependent on agreement by politicians meeting in Seville later this month to decide which projects will be funded in the coming years.
Because of the uncertainty, 1,200 scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, have written to ministers warning of the danger of failing to fund the asteroid mission.
They wrote: “As citizens of our Solar System, we need to expand our body of knowledge of the Universe in which we live and how we can protect our planet from hazards originating in space.
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“Near-Earth asteroids will either strike the Earth’s surface or explode in a fire all at low altitude, in both cases causing severe damage over regions of thousands of square kilometres or more.
“Unlike other natural disasters, an asteroid impact with Earth is not only one we know how to predict, but one we can prevent, by means that just need to be tested.
“Today, we are the first generation of humans who have the necessary technology to try to change the trajectory of an asteroid.
“We strongly urge governments to keep the upcoming Hera mission high on the agenda … providing new and vital knowledge necessary to protect ourselves and future generations.”
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Asteroids are the remnants of nascent planets, ranging in size from a few feet to hundreds of miles across.
Just like Earth, they orbit the Sun and sometimes come perilously close to Earth and there is nothing that can be done to deflect an incoming threat.
Tens of millions of asteroids are larger than 30ft, meaning they potentially possess the energy larger than a small nuclear weapon if they entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Scientists have so far identified just 21,443, fewer than 20 percent of the total.
The call for funding was made at a press conference in Berlin ahead of the ministerial meeting in Spain.
Dr Patrick Michel, AIDA/HERA Principal Investigator, said: “New asteroids are now being discovered at the rate of some four per day.
“We need a coordinated international strategy for near-Earth object impact mitigation.
“The AIDA collaboration will give us the unique possibility to test our capabilities to deflect an asteroid, combined with fascinating science.”
The NASA DART mission will likely launch next year, arriving at the binary asteroid system in 2022, where it will immediately crash into the 525ft wide Didymos B circling the half mile-wide Didymos A
Discovered in 1966 the system, orbits the Sun every 771 days and is classed as an asteroid “potentially hazardous” to our planet.