World Asteroid Day raises awareness of a deadly menace

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AIM and two CubeSats observe as DART collides with an asteroid(Credit: ESA)

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June 30th marked the world's first Asteroid Day – a global awareness campaign designed to promote an understanding of the dangers presented by the rocky bodies, and how best to protect our planet from a potentially catastrophic asteroid impact. Significantly, the campaign was held on the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska asteroid strike – an impact that devastated eight hundred square miles of Siberian forest, and served as a powerful indicator of the damage that could be wrought by just one of the 600,000 plus known asteroids whizzing around our solar system.

June saw ESA's six member states participate in a workshop on asteroid impact preparedness in the wake of the February 2013 Chelyabinsk asteroid strike, which caused significant damage to the city. The workshop focused on information distribution and lines of communication between various governmental channels, which would be vital for disseminating safety information to the general public.

"In the event of a threat, we need to clearly establish roles and responsibilities for the impact zone," states Nicolas Bobrinsky, Head of ESA’s Space Situational Awareness program. "Clear planning is the key to improved public safety."

Image of the aftermath of the Tunguska event(Credit: Leonid Kulik Expedition)

Organizations across the globe are already employed in the task of tracking potentially dangerous asteroids, but a growing number of astronauts, scientists and technology leaders believe that these efforts are insufficient.

Therefore, on Asteroid Day, people from all walks of life were invited to sign the 100x Declaration and make their voices heard alongside the experts. The petition urges a hundred-fold increase in detection capabilities, allowing for the discovery and tracking of 100,000 near-Earth asteroids per year, to be put in place over a 10-year period, and a global adoption of Asteroid Day so as to better inform the general public.

But just tracking a harmful object isn't enough to safeguard mankind and every other species present on planet Earth. We must also learn to defend ourselves. One mission concept that would test key technologies that could one day shield us from an extraterrestrial threat is ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM).

Should concept become reality, the AIM spacecraft will need to be ready for launch in October 2020 in order to intercept the target binary asteroid system, Didymos, at its closest proximity to Earth, with an expected arrival date at the of June 2022.

AIM communicating with Earth(Credit: ESA)

If all goes to plan, AIM will succeed in establishing an orbit around the smaller of the two bodies, Didymoon, and perform in-depth visual thermal and radar mapping of the asteroid down to a 1-meter resolution.

Currently only in the design phase, AIM would seek to better understand the great menace, and asses the potential of deflecting a hazardous asteroid via a kinetic impactor. The kinetic impactor in this case will come in the form of NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will crash into the asteroid at a speed of 6 km per sec (3.7 miles per sec).

Once DART has impacted on the surface of Didymoon, AIM, having deployed six CubeSats and a lander in order to maximize scientific potential, will make detailed observations of any effects that the collision had on the trajectory and structure of the rocky body. Whilst this may sound like a humble starting point, forerunner missions such as AIM and DART could one day provide an effective shield with which to safeguard the human race.

The AIM mission is set to be put before the ESA Council of Ministers in November 2016 for concept approval.

ESA's short Q & A video on the asteroid threat can be seen below.

Source: Asteroid Day

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