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ARM spacecraft

Earth is Unprepared for an Asteroid Strike

Is the Earth prepared for a cataclysmic strike by an asteroid? Though rare, giant asteroids have hit Earth. Both the 1908 Tunguska fireball and the 2013 Chelyabinsk strike surprised scientists. This question was recently addressed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA’s Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren says,

We are not fully prepared, but we are on a trajectory to get much more so.

If we are going to be as capable a civilization as our technology allows, we need to be prepared for even those rare events because they could do a lot of damage to the Earth.

Techniques involve Ion Beam Deflection, Enhanced Gravity Tractor and kinetic impactors to address issues with asteroids. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has been approved with a $1.4 billion budget (excluding launch costs) to capture boulders from near-Earth asteroids for analysis. Near-Earth asteroids are those located less than 121 million miles from the Sun at the closest point in their orbit.

Working on ARM.

Working on ARM.

Holdren adds,

This is a hazard that 65 million years ago the dinosaurs succumbed to. We have to be smarter than the dinosaurs.

The first phase of ARM is to design and develop the robotic segment of the two-phase project. The second phase involves manned spacecraft with a launch set for December 2021.

NASA writes,

NASA is developing the first-ever robotic mission to visit s large near-Earth asteroid and redirect it to stable orbit around the moon. Once there, astronauts will explore it and return with samples.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program has already catalogued 1,000 near- Earth asteroids. Before deciding on a target asteroid for ARM, they are studying their orbit, velocity, size and spin. The target asteroid is to be selected by 2020.

Selecting and capturing an asteroid's boulder.

Selecting and capturing an asteroid’s boulder.

The robotic spacecraft is to capture a boulder from the asteroid. The mass of the spacecraft and the captured asteroid will cause a small gravitational attraction to alter the orbit of the large, multi-ton asteroid. Thus, in addition to capturing a sample, the maneuver will deflect dangerous asteroids, protecting the Earth.

The captured boulder.

The captured boulder.

After capturing the boulder, the spacecraft will slowly redirect the boulder to an orbit around the moon, the moon’s gravity offering an assist. Once safely in orbit, astronauts can select, collect and return samples to Earth.

Associate Administrator at NASA, Robert Lightfoot says,

This is an exciting milestone for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Not only is ARM leveraging agency-wide capabilities it will test a number of new technologies already in development.

One such technology is NASA’s Solar Energy Program (SEP), which will increase spaceflight transportation efficiency over ten times the currently used chemical propulsion technology. It will convert solar energy from solar arrays into electricity.

The goal is to demonstrate key capabilities that will be necessary for NASA’s planned 2026 mission to Mars.

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