May 11, 2021

Science joins forces for planetary defense against asteroids



The scientific community has become aware in recent decades of the need to measure the current technological capacity to avoid the collision of asteroids with the Earth and to look for protection devices against this potential risk.

This is what the expert has indicated to Efe Adriano Campo Bagatin, professor at the University of Alicante (UA), one of the fifteen European institutions that make up a consortium that carries out a project financed by the European Comission with four million euros in the 2019 H2020 call ‘Advanced research in near-Earth objects and new technologies for planetary defense’.

The project, named NEO-MAPP (acronym that means near-Earth object model and protection device), will be developed until 2023.

Its primary goal is “significant advancement in our understanding of how an asteroid responds when struck by a spacecraft launched at high speed, which would be a kinetic impact “, and also” how an asteroid responds to a step close to a planet “, the expert has revealed.

Likewise, “it is intended to determine what instrumentation is necessary on board a spacecraft in order to be able to fully determine all the physical, morphological and geological characteristics of an asteroid object of a caused kinetic impact, “said Campo Bagatin, head of the UA part in NEO-MAPP.

“As a reference asteroid for most of the studies we use the Didymos binary system (twins, in Greek), formed by a primary asteroid, baptized with the same name, of about 800 meters in size, and its satellite (Dimorphos), of barely 160 meters “, explained this professor from the Department of Physics, Systems Engineering and Signal Theory of the UA.

Regarding the research section on “how an asteroid responds to a step close to a planet”, Apophis will be used, which will approach only 31,600 kilometers from the earth’s surface on April 13, 2029; that is, by leaving the orbit of geostationary satellites.

On that date an attempt will be made to know if Apophis – about 300 meters in size and from which it has been excluded that it will collide with the Earth for at least a century, according to the latest observations- will deform and in what way as a result of its passage close to the atmosphere, has advanced Campo Bagatin.

The context in which NEO-MAPP takes place is closely related to two space missions, already announced in their day: DART, from the POT, and Hera, from the European Space Agency (ESA), who, although separate, are part of the AIDA (Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment) project to deflect asteroids that can collide with Earth.

Precisely, both missions target the Didymos binary system at the time of its closest approach to Earth, in 2022.

The DART spacecraft, weighing more than 600 kilos, will be launched between November this year and February 2022 to crash at the end of September next year on the surface of the smaller of the two asteroids (Dimorphos) at a speed of 6.5 kilometers per second, with the intention of causing a crater and slightly modifying its orbit around the primary one.

Four years later In 2026, the European probe Hera is scheduled to arrive in the binary system to fully study the effects of the collision made by DART.

In this phase the Bagatin Field group is involved within NEO-MAPP, since one of its main objectives will be to unravel the internal structure of Dimorphos and, if possible, of the primary asteroid. In addition, another of its tasks, linked to the previous one, will be how these binary objects have been formed, because at the moment it is unknown.

15% of all objects close, in astronomical terms, to Earth’s orbit are binary asteroid systems, this expert has specified.

According to Campo Bagatin, knowing its internal composition can be key to find out how an object of these characteristics could be deflected in the event that there may be a risk of collision with the Earth.

“The only technologically feasible at this time” to test whether an asteroid can be diverted from its orbit is to carry out a kinetic impact and what is intended with the DART and Hera missions is to check if said procedure “is really effective”, outstanding.

That will be seen in the current decade and, if successful, the start of planetary defense could cease to be science fiction.

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