Astronomers have created new procedures. They will use them when they discover asteroids on collision course with Earth

What to do with the Earth-threatening asteroid? Researchers from MIT have developed a procedure that will allow you to quickly make a decision. Source: Christine Daniloff, MIT

On Friday the thirteenth, specifically on Friday, April 13, 2029, a large asteroid will fly near Earth. Apophis, because that's the name it has, is almost 300 m in diameter and during the flight it will be closer to Earth than satellites in geostationary orbit.

Observations of the asteroid 99942 Apophis, conducted immediately after its discovery, indicated that during the flight near Earth in 2029, it would fly through the gravitational keyhole, i.e. in the place where the gravitational field of our planet will curve its trajectory so that during the next passage in 2036, it will hit the earth. Fortunately, newer and more accurate observations indicate that the asteroid will pass the Earth safely during both flights.

This situation prompted scientists to develop strategies that will allow an efficient deflection of the asteroid's flight path if we discover one that is going straight toward Earth.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a procedure that will efficiently determine the type of space mission to efficiently change the flight path of an asteroid approaching us. The choice of the right mission depends on the mass of the asteroid, its momentum or the time remaining to collide. In addition, scientists must take into account uncertainties associated with these and many other parameters when making decisions.

Engineers applied their method to the asteroids Apophis and Bennu. Bennu is a planetoid that periodically approaches Earth. Currently, the OSIRISREx probe is in its vicinity, which in 2023 will bring to Earth samples of matter taken from the surface of the asteroid. A few days ago I wrote about the fact that the probe is currently approaching the asteroid by examining various places from which it will take a sample of matter within a few months.

In the article, which will be published in the coming days in the journal Acta Astronautica, researchers are using their procedure to determine the best type of mission that would be to deflect the Apophis and Bennu flight path if one of them intended to make us a big cuckoo.

So far, strategies have been considered for deflecting the asteroid's flight path, which has already passed through this key point in Earth's gravitational field and is heading for collision with Earth. Our goal is to prevent this point from passing long before potential impact on Earth. It's about getting the first blow early and saving yourself, "says Sung Wook Peak, lead author of the MIT study.

How to avoid annihilation?

In 2007, NASA prepared a report for the American Congress, which concluded that the most effective method of deferring the threat is treating the planetoid with a nuclear charge. An atomic charge explosion on the surface of the asteroid would effectively change its flight path. However, this is quite a controversial idea, as with everything that concerns the use of nuclear charges in space.

Optionally, you can use the so-called kinetic impactor - a probe, rocket or other projectile, which, if aimed at the right place, at the right speed, should transfer part of its momentum to the planetoid, thus changing its trajectory.

In this case, however, we would need to know the mass, momentum, trajectory and chemical composition of the surface of the asteroid before the overtaking impact. For such a delicate task, all uncertainty of measurement should be taken into account. If we are dealing with an asteroid that could potentially sweep us off the face of the Earth, then the probability of mission success cannot be 90 percent. and 99.9 percent

Peak and his colleagues have developed a program that allows you to identify the most appropriate type of space mission to save the Earth from colliding with an asteroid.

Among the considered missions were missions containing the basic kinetic impactor, which aims to change the direction of the asteroid's flight. The alternative were different mission variations that included sending a probe that would accurately measure the size and mass of the asteroid, and then send a well-prepared impactor.

Researchers introduced specific variables to the program, such as mass, momentum and asteroid trajectory, and the uncertainty range for each of these variables. Most importantly, as part of the simulation, researchers took into account the distance between the asteroid and the gravitational keyhole and the time remaining until the asteroid passed through it.

Such a keyhole is a kind of door - when asteroid passes through it, it is likely to hit the Earth - says Peak.

In their work, engineers took care of two asteroids Apophis and Bennu, for which the location of the gravitational keyhole on Earth is known.

The simulations introduced different distances between the asteroid and the keyhole. It was then assessed which of the three main mission types would be most likely to succeed.

If Apophis were to pass through the gravitational keyhole in at least five years, scientists would have enough time to send two probes - one would measure the size of the asteroid, and the other would gently shift in orbit - before sending the main missile. If the passage through the keyhole was to take place in 2 to 5 years, one probe can be sent to measure the size of the asteroid and to specify the parameters of the main missile that would change the asteroid's trajectory. If the passage through the keyhole would take place within a year - it would probably be too late for any action.

The asteroid Bennu is similar, although scientists know a little more about its chemical composition, so that sending probes before the impactor would not be needed.

The mission selection procedure developed by Peak in the future will allow you to quickly estimate the probability of success of various space missions aimed at protecting the Earth from an asteroid impact.

Instead of changing the size of the projectile / impactor, we can choose to send several smaller impactors that will collide with the asteroid in turn. We may also consider sending missiles from the moon or using satellites as impactors. Now we have a clear road map that will allow us to quickly estimate what kind of mission will be suitable for any asteroid.

Astronomers have created new procedures. They will use them when they discover asteroids on a collision course with Earth


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