The agency plans to blast the tiny rock into the atmosphere to test technologies to track and destroy menacing asteroids
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In case you’ve been living under a rock, there’s a big New Year’s ball drop coming up. In the universe of outer space, though, there’s even bigger rocket celebrations.
That’s because NASA has just announced that it will attempt a cosmic sendoff with its bantam probe that’s aiming to bring the world’s longest-living asteroid back into a NASA mine.
The US space agency will destroy a small rock, at least 100kg, in a crash-bang trajectory later this year to test technologies to save us from future potential body annihilation.
The untitled project is led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where a rock big enough to be “one of the heaviest asteroid boulders in the solar system” will be launched.
This brand new spacecraft will penetrate a few metres into the Earth-sized rock in a seven-week “fractional” mission around the Earth. It will then use a mirror and camera to observe the asteroid below, before releasing a heavy metal aircraft and pulverising the rock.
This combination of decimating the asteroid on impact and then returning the body to a rendezvous with NASA will show how the agency’s close orbits of asteroids during which the body may pose a threat will work – especially if the asteroid’s orbit moves into a potentially hostile phase of its life.
Some good and bad news for space fans. The crash-bang plans are subject to the final agreement of four rocket models from several well-known aerospace companies, and all four are steeped in their own lengthy histories of involvement in flight plans. In particular, Lockheed Martin has been making plans to send its Orion spacecraft into space for a long time now, while Boeing was involved in designing and building the International Space Station.
This doesn’t really matter because the whole of the US aerospace industry is excited about working with the US government on planetary defense.
In particular, Nasa is rolling out the Maven mission, which aims to rendezvous with one of the most interesting asteroid since the asteroid Eros – a large space rock that might turn out to have the equivalent of a large city on its surface. Such a monster is bound to make for a potentially apocalyptic target, and might not even have joined up with its sibling asteroids that gave us the dinosaurs.
There was even talk that Eros was close to colliding with Earth in 2005, so it’s always better to be aware of possible danger.
Nasa engineers talk about studying the Eros asteroid. Photograph: NASA Ames/Shelby Scott/helium-3 IST
At the same time, NASA has become paranoid that almost all the asteroids out there are really threatening. In the next decade it plans to study about 400,000 meteoroids, asteroids and comets as part of the Swinger-2 mission. It will also explore remote parts of the solar system to learn more about such celestial oddities.
The US space agency is also working on an innovative new asteroid mining system. As we know now, we need a lot of stuff to live here, from food to clean water. And, after a lifetime of raining irretrievable rubbish down on our planet’s surface, we’ve got a really limited amount of minerals on it.
So there’s a big market coming up for pretty big mining companies. Soon we’ll be able to mine “space rocks”.