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China will aim to crash a spaceship into an asteroid as part of plans for a planetary defence system that could one day stop a space rock smashing into Earth.

The deflection mission, which is intended to alter the orbit of an as yet unnamed asteroid, is similar to NASA‘s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).

That spacecraft was launched in November last year on a year-long journey to crash into the small asteroid Dimorphos 6.8 million miles from Earth.

Beijing‘s version, which was laid out by the deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), is scheduled for launch sometime in the mid-2020s.

The destination for the mission has not yet been selected, but Wu Yanhua said the CNSA plans to target a potentially hazardous asteroid — an object that has a chance, even if it is slim, of colliding with our planet sometime in the future.

China will aim to crash a spaceship into an asteroid as part of plans for a planetary defence system that could one day stop a space rock smashing into Earth. They were laid out by the deputy director of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua

China will aim to crash a spaceship into an asteroid as part of plans for a planetary defence system that could one day stop a space rock smashing into Earth. They were laid out by the deputy director of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua

China will aim to crash a spaceship into an asteroid as part of plans for a planetary defence system that could one day stop a space rock smashing into Earth. They were laid out by the deputy director of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua

WHAT ARE CHINA’S SPACE PLANS FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? 

In January this year, China revealed a ‘white paper’ which set out the plans for its space programme over the next five years.

It included building a near-earth object defence system, along with an aim to ‘increase the capacity of near-earth object monitoring, cataloguing, early warning, and response’.

China also wants to complete its space station, probe comets, explore Jupiter and ‘complete key technological research on Mars sampling and return’.

In addition, Beijing is developing a combined asteroid sample-return and comet rendezvous mission. 

Expected to launch before 2025, it will target Earth’s quasi-satellite Kamoʻoalewa, deliver samples to Earth and then head for a rendezvous with main-belt comet 311P/PANSTARRS.

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CNSA also plans to establish an early warning system and develop software to simulate operations against near Earth objects and test and verify basic procedures. 

Wu described the aims during a celebration of China’s Space Day, which commemorates the launch of the nation’s first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, on April 24, 1970.

The CNSA had already set out plans for building a near-earth object defence system in a space ‘white paper’ released in January, along with an aim to ‘increase the capacity of near-earth object monitoring, cataloguing, early warning, and response’.

The white paper set out CNSA’s plans over the 2021 to 2025 period.

China also wants to complete its space station, probe comets, explore Jupiter and ‘complete key technological research on Mars sampling and return’.

Over the next five years Beijing vowed to ‘continue studies and research on the plan for a human lunar landing’, develop new-generation manned spacecraft, and further expand its launch vehicle family.

‘In the next five years, China will integrate space science, technology and applications while pursuing the new development philosophy, building a new development model and meeting the requirements for high-quality development,’ the white paper says.

‘It will start a new journey towards a space power. 

‘The space industry will contribute more to China’s growth as a whole, to global consensus and common effort with regard to outer space exploration and utilisation, and to human progress.’

China is also developing a combined asteroid sample-return and comet rendezvous mission. 

Expected to launch before 2025, it will target Earth’s quasi-satellite Kamoʻoalewa, deliver samples to Earth and then head for a rendezvous with main-belt comet 311P/PANSTARRS.

The deflection mission, which is intended to alter the orbit of an as yet unnamed asteroid, is similar to NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART)

The deflection mission, which is intended to alter the orbit of an as yet unnamed asteroid, is similar to NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART)

The deflection mission, which is intended to alter the orbit of an as yet unnamed asteroid, is similar to NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) 

DART will arrive at Dimorphos in September this year, where it will deliberately smash into the asteroid at speeds of 15,000mph. This collision will change the speed of Dimorphos in its orbit around Didymos by a fraction of one per cent, changing the orbital period by several minutes

DART will arrive at Dimorphos in September this year, where it will deliberately smash into the asteroid at speeds of 15,000mph. This collision will change the speed of Dimorphos in its orbit around Didymos by a fraction of one per cent, changing the orbital period by several minutes

DART will arrive at Dimorphos in September this year, where it will deliberately smash into the asteroid at speeds of 15,000mph. This collision will change the speed of Dimorphos in its orbit around Didymos by a fraction of one per cent, changing the orbital period by several minutes

WHAT IS THE NASA DART MISSION? 

DART will be the world’s first planetary defence test mission.

It is heading for the small moonlet asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger companion asteroid called Didymos.

When it gets there it will be intentionally crashing into the asteroid to slightly change its orbit.

While neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, DART’s kinetic impact will prove that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and kinetically impact it.

Then, using Earth-based telescopes to measure the effects of the impact on the asteroid system, the mission will enhance modeling and predictive capabilities to help us better prepare for an actual asteroid threat should one ever be discovered.

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NASA’s $325m (£240m) DART mission launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on November 24.

It is on a year-long journey to crash into the small asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos, at 15,000mph (24,100km/h) in September this year.

When the 1,210lb space probe hits Dimorphos, the plan is for it to change the speed of the ‘moonlet’ by a fraction of a per cent.

Although the 525ft-wide space rock doesn’t pose a danger to Earth, NASA wants to measure the asteroid’s altered orbit caused by the collision.

This demonstration of ‘planetary defence’ will inform future missions that could one day save Earth from a deadly asteroid impact. 

‘This isn’t going to destroy the asteroid. It’s just going to give it a small nudge,’ said mission official Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project. 

Dimorphos completes an orbit around Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes ‘just like clockwork’, she added. 

DART’s goal is a crash that will slow Dimorphos down and cause it to fall closer toward the bigger asteroid, shaving 10 minutes off its orbit.

The European Space Agency will then send its Hera mission to Didymos and Dimorphos later in the decade to examine the after effects of the DART mission impact.

DEFLECTING AN ASTEROID WOULD REQUIRE ‘MULTIPLE BUMPS’, STUDY SAYS

Deflecting an asteroid such as Bennu, which has a small chance of hitting Earth in about a century and a half, could require multiple small impacts from some sort of massive human-made deflection device, according to experts.

Scientists in California have been firing projectiles at meteorites to simulate the best methods of altering the course of an asteroid so that it wouldn’t hit Earth. 

According to the results so far, an asteroid like Bennu that is rich in carbon could need several small bumps to charge its course.

Bennu, which is about a third of a mile wide, has a slightly greater chance of hitting Earth than previously thought, NASA has previously revealed.

The space agency upgraded the risk of Bennu impacting Earth at some point over the next 300 years to one in 1,750.

Bennu also has a one-in-2,700 chance of hitting Earth on the afternoon of September 24, 2182, according to the NASA study.  

Scientists have been seriously considering how to stop an asteroid from ever hitting Earth since the 1960s, but previous approaches have generally involved theories on how to blow the cosmic object into thousands of pieces.

The problem with this is these pieces could potentially zoom towards Earth and present almost as dangerous and humanity-threatening an issue as the original asteroid. 

A more recent approach, called kinetic impact deflection (KID), involves firing something into space that more gently bumps the asteroid off course, away from Earth, while keeping it intact. 

Recent KID efforts were outlined at the 84th annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society held in Chicago and led by Dr George Flynn, a physicist at State University of New York, Plattsburgh.  

‘You might have to use multiple impacts,’ Dr Flynn said in conversation with The New York Times. ‘It [Bennu] may barely miss, but barely missing is enough.’

Researchers have been working at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range, built in the 1960s during the Apollo era and based at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, for the recent KID experiments.

They fired small, spherical aluminum projectiles at meteorites suspended by pieces of nylon string.

The team used 32 meteorites – which are fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth from space – that were mostly purchased from private dealers. 

The tests have allowed them to work out at what point momentum from a human-made object fired towards an asteroid turns it into thousands of fragments, rather than knocking it off course as desired. 

‘If you break it into pieces, some of those pieces may still be on a collision course with Earth,’ Dr Flynn said. 

Carbonaceous chondrite (C-type) asteroids, such as Bennu, are the most common in the solar system. 

They are darker than other asteroids due to the presence of carbon and are some of the most ancient objects in the solar system – dating back to its birth. 

According to the findings from experiments at AVGR, the type of asteroid being targeted (and how much carbon it has in it) may dictate how much momentum would be directed at it from any human-made KID device.   

From the experiments, the researchers found C-type meteorites could withstand only about one-sixth of the momentum that the other chondrites could withstand before shattering. 

‘[C-type] asteroids are much more difficult to deflect without disruption than ordinary chondrite asteroids,’ the experts concluded.  

‘These results indicate multiple successive impacts may be required to deflect rather than disrupt asteroids, particularly carbonaceous asteroids.’

Therefore, around 160 years in the future – when Bennu is most likely to collide with Earth, according to NASA – a KID device would have to give it a series of gentle nudges to prevent it from breaking up and sending dangerous splinter fragments flying towards Earth.

NASA’s recent study about Bennu, published in the journal Icarus, did point out there is more than a 99.9 per cent probability Bennu will not smash into Earth over the next three centuries. 

‘Although the chances of it hitting Earth are very low, Bennu remains one of the two most hazardous known asteroids in our solar system, along with another asteroid called 1950 DA,’ NASA said in a statement.     

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Source: DailyMail

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