Does art really imitate life or is it actually the other way around? After all, when Michael Bay created the classic (and yes, I really do think it’s a classic) film Armageddon nearly two decades ago, he couldn’t have imagined that NASA would borrow his fictionalized plot and apply it in real life. But lo and behold, the future is upon us, and when it comes to rocket scientists looking for ways to save the world, Mr. Bay’s notions aren’t looking too shabby. A joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has manifested itself in a project known as Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which as the name suggests, looks to protect the denizens of our great planet from giant incoming rocks. And at the heart of the project is the plan to ram an asteroid with a spaceship.
The asteroid in question is the 65803 Didymos, a rather intimidating asteroid system that involves a smaller asteroid orbiting its big brother. But fret not — AIDA is here to save the day with two separate spacecrafts, one European and one American. In a two-step process, the ESA and NASA seek to study and subsequently destroy the incoming system — in 2020, ESA will launch Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), the first of the two spacecrafts, in order to take notes regarding the orbit of both Didymos and little brother Didymoon (the orbiting one). Once AIM has come back with the information, NASA will launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART, for short), in 2022.
And then DART will ram itself into Didymoon
It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s pretty glorious and decidedly American in its brute display of sheer strength. And really, the purpose of the project is to see just how much strength is actually necessary when it comes to deflecting an asteroid. “To deflect an asteroid that may be on an impact path with the Earth,” Lindley Johnson of NASA told The Daily Beast, “we simply must either speed up its orbital velocity a small amount or slow it down a small amount.” Johnson continued, “But if you were add or subtract just an inch per second of velocity to the asteroid, that will over time change the position of the asteroid in its orbit enough that in a couple of years the asteroid will miss the Earth.” So now, we just need to figure out “how much force is required to impart that inch per second of velocity change.”
Despite their considerable presence in sci-fi movies and the collective public safety conscience, asteroids aren’t the best understood extraterrestrial objects, which is something AIDA is looking to change. “To protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts, we need to understand asteroids much better,” said Patrick Michel, head of the AIM team, at the European Planetary Science Congress. “AIDA will be the first mission to study an asteroid binary system, as well as the first to test whether we can deflect an asteroid through an impact with a spacecraft.”
Godspeed, rocket scientists. You may just need it.