NASA is going to push ahead with its part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, despite its partner – ESA – effectively pulling out of the mission earlier this month.
The groundbreaking AIDA mission would have seen an ESA-built spacecraft, the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), launch towards an asteroid called Didymos in October 2020. Then, in October 2022, a NASA-build spacecraft called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) would have slammed into a small moonlet of the asteroid, called Didymoon, and AIM would have observed changes in the moonlet’s orbit.
Unfortunately, on December 2, ESA’s Ministerial Council elected to scrap funding for AIM, in favor of spending money on the 2020 ExoMars rover and the International Space Station (ISS), among other projects. This left the fate of the whole project in doubt.
But speaking last week at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, several scientists said that NASA was continuing with its part of the mission for now, without ESA’s help. And DART could still be flown, with the changes in the orbit of Didymoon observed by Earth-based telescopes instead.
“DART was designed to be independent of AIM,” said Joseph Nuth, senior scientist for primitive bodies at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, reported SpaceNews. “AIM makes it better, but all the information can be derived from ground-based instruments.”
A decision by NASA is not expected to be made until March 2017. But if DART can work independently, then the mission can hopefully go ahead.
Aside from the obviously cool aspect of slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid, the mission would prove hugely useful in saving Earth from asteroids in the future. The change in orbit of Didymoon from DART is expected to be tiny, in the order of inches. But if an asteroid was one day found to be on a collision course with Earth, a scaled up version could be enough to deflect it away from our planet.
“An asteroid impact is the only natural disaster we know how to prevent if we work together towards a global solution,” Grigorij Richters, co-founder of the Asteroid Day movement, told IFLScience earlier this month. “We are all crew of Spaceship Earth.”