America’s best defense against a massive meteorite explosion

You will soon have a whole new reason to think about “the big one.”

In the wake of the North Korea threat and the news of the massive meteorite explosion over Russia in February, NASA and the private space sector are at it again.

“If we had a natural disaster where we suddenly had an asteroid hitting our surface, you can imagine how severe the damage would be,” said Terry Christensen, mission manager of the NASA asteroid-docking mission, NEOSSat. “It can be an economic event or it can be a physical impact disaster. We thought it was prudent to invest time and money to learn about the size and location of these objects from the ground.”

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For those still hoping for another Apollo moon landing, the mission is years away from a target. Researchers will fly a robotic spacecraft, NEOSSat, down from Earth in 2015, attach itself to an asteroid and crash into it in 2020. It will allow NASA scientists to study the motion of the asteroid as well as it ability to withstand such a violent impact.

The goal for the crash is to make sure the asteroid is healthy enough to withstand the impact and will maintain its original orbit as NASA models learn more about it.

“If we’re successful, it will give us a snapshot of what the initial threat is,” Christensen said. “All of the radiation coming out of the asteroid, its density. And we will also be observing it as its tracking from Earth.”

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The spacecraft also helps verify the viability of remote sensing missions planned for 2020.

Right now, everything points to the object being roughly 1 to 10 meters wide. At this size, it would only be capable of an impact 30 feet across, or about the size of a multi-story building.

“Before they send a spacecraft to an asteroid, they have to verify the asteroid is really a threat. And after it does have an impact it has to be stabilized,” Christensen said. “So, we hope this test will help us determine whether an asteroid is good to send there or not.”

While the mission isn’t expected to threaten the Earth, there is some risk.

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“Any impact with a space rock could cause problems, regardless of its size or density. Impact events of small size can be dangerous to humans as well as other large bodies,” said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Sebastian Hall, NEOSSat’s principal investigator. “The best way to assure that this asteroid is stable is to determine its structural integrity, and measuring the asteroid’s velocity and orientation from Earth allows us to calculate how stable it is and therefore what its behavior will be in the event of an impact.”

Also through this test, NEOSSat will send back information about the asteroid’s size, mass, gravity and acceleration. It will be one of the most important space missions yet.

Researchers are interested in knowing more about what the asteroid was made of, when it formed and what the current chemical makeup of the asteroid is. Just because it’s in space, that doesn’t mean it won’t play a role in the future.

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