China plans to crash a spaceship into an asteroid that is potentially hazardous to Earth to alter its trajectory, a maneuver that caps off a multi-step planetary defense strategy that was outlined by a representative of the nation’s space agency on Sunday, reports SpaceNews.
The asteroid deflection mission is scheduled for launch sometime in the mid-2020s, according to Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), who described the project 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 destination for the mission has not yet been selected, but Wu said the CNSA plans to target a potentially hazardous asteroid—in other words, an object that has a chance, however slim, of colliding with Earth sometime in the future. The endeavor will “make a new contribution to China for our future human beings to truly deal with the threat of asteroids and extraterrestrial objects,” he said, according to a translated article from the news site Sina.
The planned mission is somewhat similar to NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a spacecraft that launched last November. DART is currently hurtling toward Didymos, a potentially hazardous asteroid that is orbited by a small rock, called Dimorphos, which measures about 500 feet across.
Sometime this autumn, DART will slam into the “moonlet” Dimorphos at an estimated 15,000 miles per hour, a deliberate crash that will shift its orbital trajectory around Didymos. If all goes to plan, a small satellite called Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) will take pictures of the collision and its aftermath. The European Space agency also plans to send a follow-up mission, called Hera, to Didymos around 2026, to assess the long-term change to the system.
These asteroid deflection missions are designed to anticipate the threat of a potential impact to Earth. In the near term, it is incredibly unlikely that our planet will face the kind of apocalyptic collision that wiped out the dinosaurs, and countless other species, 66 million years ago, because most large objects are already being tracked by scientists.
However, a smaller object such as Didymos, which measures about half a mile, could still deal enormous regional damage in the event of an impact. While the risk of such a disaster is very small, researchers in the U.S, China, and elsewhere are preparing for this outcome by running tabletop exercises, cataloging as many near-Earth objects (NEOs) as possible, and developing new missions like DART to fine-tune our ability to steer any particularly scary objects off-course if necessary.