Just in time for the 30th anniversary of man landing on the moon, the US space agency wants to test its methods for intercepting asteroids and setting them on course to collide with Earth.
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The Approach and Mitigation for Solar System Objects (AmSpec) mission (ARM) will attempt to catch an asteroid on course for Earth. If successful, it will help the United States and other countries explore how to avoid inbound space rocks, or defend against an impact – one of the greatest threats to humanity.
How it works
NASA has put together a team that includes scientists from 16 universities to determine the best way to catch an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Once the asteroid’s orbit is determined, scientists will attach a thin, needle-like tether to it at a safe distance.
It’s the same way that astronauts in lunar orbit would grab an astronaut-carrying robot arm and attach it to the moon’s surface so that future missions can explore.
The team is relying on two attributes of the asteroid that allow researchers to determine its position: gravity and its course. G-forces generated by interactions with Earth’s gravity will cause the asteroid to drop. Scientists will be hoping that the asteroid is on a slanted path similar to one that it had followed before.
How it works
The tether will affect the asteroid through friction. In the spring of 2026, the team plans to thread a short tether through the asteroid’s narrow neck and slow it down. The operation will be relatively low-risk because the asteroid will have one chance to complete its course back to Earth, before NASA has time to divert it. If the asteroid hits the Earth, there would be very little chance of serious damage.
“By either slamming the spacecraft into the asteroid and detonating our on-board explosives or by redirecting the asteroid and causing it to veer off course and miss us, the asteroid could either not have any impact at all or be one of our country’s closest brushins with death in history,” said William Anders, leader of the ARM science team.
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Here’s a big question: can we actually catch asteroids?
The challenge is that many asteroids are so big that it can take billions of years before you’d be able to track them down.
On that point, Anders had a quick response. “That’s an entirely different kind of problem, because you really want to catch a comet in its infancy.”
NASA admits that catching an asteroid that is in fact out of the reach of Earth’s gravity would be an unprecedented feat.