We already know that if we discovered today an asteroid heading towards Earth we couldn't do anything to avoid the impact.. This was released recently with an experiment coordinated by NASA at the Planetary Defense Conference, which made many people apprehensive. But how does science intend to do this in the future?
In terms of planetary defense, a series of creative ideas have already been presented to deflect an asteroid that may be on its way to Land. One of them proposes painting the asteroid to alter the Yarkovsky effect, which generates a small force on a rotating body due to its thermal radiation. Another very well accepted idea is the gravitational tractor, a very massive spacecraft, which could deflect an asteroid just by approaching it. Its gravitational interaction with the space rock it would be able to cause a small change in its orbit, and if this were done for several years, the orbit could be significantly altered, preventing a possible impact with Earth.
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The problem is that these and many other good ideas, for now, are just in the idea. Partly due to lack of technology, partly due to lack of investment. But recently, we've had some good advances in this field. The most important of these is the AIDA-DART mission, developed in partnership between the American and European space agencies.
The main objective of the mission is to assess the effects of a projectile's impact against an asteroid. And the chosen target is the Asteroid Didymos, which has a mini-moon called Dimorphus, or Didymoon, for intimates.
In the original idea, ESA would send a probe, called AIDA, which would enter the Didymos system orbit and make a series of measurements and analyzes of the asteroid and its moon. Next, NASA would send a second probe, DART, which would hit Dimorphus at high speed. The effects of that impact would be monitored by AIDA.
Unfortunately, political and financial issues altered European planning and delayed the launch of AIDA. As a result, it will only arrive at Didymos in 2027, five years after the DART impact, which should occur next year, and now it must be monitored by ground-based telescopes and by an Italian cubesat.
The success of these tests may show us a way to deflect asteroids from kinetic projectiles. But you can already see that we need a lot of time in advance to plan and carry out a mission like this.
the russian solution
And if none of this goes well, who can defend us? The Russians! For some time now, Russia has been working on a series of research projects that could create what would be our last line of defense against these space rocks: nuclear bombs.
Due to international agreements that prohibit nuclear explosions in space, the tests are limited to laboratories, but already indicate that the bombs can be successful to explode an asteroid or to deflect it, if detonated near it. For this, a technology that already exists would be used: intercontinental ballistic missiles. In an emergency situation, the missiles could be prepared in just 10 days, if the authorities agreed.
The Russians intend to test this solution with the dreaded Asteroid Apophis, during its approach in 2036. But first they need to convince the international community that this would not have undesirable consequences. I don't really like the idea of having a radioactive asteroid cloud in the path of Earth, in case something went wrong with this approach.
The search for solutions to protect the Earth against potentially dangerous asteroids, as well as awareness actions about these objects, are part of the global movement Asteroid Day, celebrated annually on June 30, the day of the biggest impact event in recent history of the humanity occurred in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. Events like the one in Tunguska are very rare, but they have always occurred and must continue to occur. Therefore, the asteroid day promotes these actions so that humanity is prepared for the next big impact.
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