Didymos is an asteroid of nearly a kilometer wide orbiting between Earth and Mars at --,--- (--,---). It is the target of NASA and ESA’s combined Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, which is designed to study and demonstrate our ability to change the course of an asteroid on collision course with Earth. The ESA contribution to the mission is called the HERA asteroid mission and was approved late 2019. Didymos has a little moon called ‘Didymoon’ which is about 160m in diameter.
Where is Asteroid Didymos now?
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Didymos circles the sun in an large orbit that occasionally crosses Earth’s. Currently it’s --,--- from us, getting --,--- --,--- us every second. It flies past Earth at an incredible speed, at --,---. Earth has infrequent encounters with this asteroid and its orbit is currently not classified as a collision risk.
Since last night Didymos is --,--- closer to us. Since you started looking at this page it is --,--- closer.
NASA and ESA are currently planning to deflect the smaller body of Didymos using a spacecraft called DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test). It will crash into the asteroid in September 2022 at about 15,000 mph. This is called the Kinetic Impactor technique to change an asteroid’s trajectory. With the spacecraft will fly an Italian cubesat called LICIACube, which will observe the impact. ESA’s Hera will arrive later to study the aftermath of the collision. Hera has two briefcase-sized cubesats that will get close to the asteroid like drones.
Monitoring dangerous objects
The planetary defense missions will also serve as a validation of new technologies such as deep space CubeSats, inter-satellite links, autonomous image-based navigation techniques and low-gravity operations.
In the 1997 movie Deep Impact, the world witnessed something everyone has feared for generations: an asteroid, on a collision course with Earth. This disaster movie presented an example of how nature may be hostile toward humanity, if we weren’t prepared. Luckily, in the real world, scientists are constantly searching for these kinds of threats to Mother Earth, and taking measures to prevent any catastrophes from happening.
An example of this is with the 65803 Asteroid Didymos (1996 GT), or just Didymos. The binary asteroid system, which lies less than 10 million kilometers away from Earth, has been of interest to astronomers and the efforts of space exploration for the past couple of decades. The system has the main body that’s 780 meters in diameter, and a “moon” named Dimorphos that’s 160 meters in diameter. It won’t come by Earth for another hundred years or so, but the fact that it’s classified as a near-Earth object means that it’s a potential threat.
Because of this, NASA and ESA have collaborated on a mission called AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment), with the goal of using a technology that will collide with the asteroid to prevent the asteroid from hitting Earth. The mission has two components, one from NASA called DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), and one from ESA called Hera. The purpose of DART is to deflect the asteroid using a technique called a “kinetic impactor”, changing the motion of the asteroid by hitting it at thousands of kilometers an hour so that it won’t potentially collide with Earth. Following DART, Hera will inspect the impact scene, which will shed light on asteroid composition, as well as gain valuable information that may prepare us for future planning in regard to planetary defence. Hera will also be ushering in a new kind of technology by autonomously navigating around the asteroid.
What makes this mission interesting
This mission’s pretty much the subject of any sci-fi enthusiast interested in asteroid collision defence. It’s not as exciting as a superhuman flying to space to stop it from reaching Earth, or using a nuclear weapon to blow it to pieces, but instead it’s a coordinated way of protecting Earth. If DART changes the trajectory of the asteroid even just by a little bit on the micro scale, that makes a big difference on the macro scale, decreasing the chances of collision. The asteroid will be the first natural body in the solar system to have its orbit be shifted by human beings, meaning the AIDA mission will be making history.
The DART spacecraft from NASA was launched in November 2021 and will arrive at the asteroid in September 2022. ESA’s Hera spacecraft will launch sometime in 2024, and arrive in 2027. Using SpaceIn3D’s simulation of the solar system, though, you can currently track where Didymos is in its trajectory throughout our planetary neighborhood, in real time.
*This Interactive 3D Simulation is built on data provided by NASA JPL HORIZONS database for solar system objects and International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. Distances and speeds are estimates based on this data.
Photo Credit and other: NASA, ESO/S. Brunier, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, NASA/JPL-Caltech, JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators, UH/IA, Solar System Scope/INOVE CC BY 4.0, Wikipedia/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, icons8.com, Péter Eke, NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Roman Tkachenko, Wikimedia Commons, Hayabusa 2 Arrival illustration by Akihiro Ikeshita (permission granted), oNline Web Fonts, Font Awesome, Galaxy vector created by stories – www.freepik.com