The Washington Post

After meteor blast in Russia, Laurel lab plans to smack an asteroid

A meteor blast over Russia is putting new focus on a transatlantic effort to crash a spacecraft into a far-flung asteroid in a bid to prove that incoming objects from space can be knocked from their path.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing a decade-long, $350 million project to propel a rocket into the asteroid Didymos as it passes close to Earth. If successful, it would be the first time an asteroid is knocked off course by human intervention.

“There is a science aspect to it and a planetary defense aspect to it,” Andy Cheng, the chief scientist of the physics laboratory in Laurel, said in an interview.

Cheng said he developed a plan for a lower-cost test for smacking an asteroid as a way to revive a shelved European effort. In a sign of the steep odds it faced, the initial European plan was called Don Quijote, named after the fictional Spanish knight who tussled with windmills he thought to be giants.

The conceptual study has support from NASA and the European Space Agency. They jointly published an initial plan for the project in May. If the plan goes forward, NASA would help Cheng’s group fund and launch “the impactor.” The ESA, which announced this month a call for research ideas on the mission, would launch a second spacecraft to assess the impact and its effect.

Defense of the planet against asteroids, a longtime focus of former astronauts, astronomers and amateur hobbyists, became the topic of worldwide discussions recently as the largest meteor to explode near Earth in a century blew out windows and injured 1,200 near the city of Chelyabinsk in central Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan.

The meteor blast over the Chelyabinsk region, which has a population of 3.6 million people, was the largest recorded since one flattened more than 800 square miles of Siberian forest in 1908.

The object entered the atmosphere at 9:20 a.m. local time Feb. 15, hours before an unrelated asteroid half the length of a football field hurtled past Earth.

The twin punch, which scientists said was coincidental, served as a warning that space continues to hold dangers for humankind. A space object, if it is big enough and hits in the right spot, could destroy a city or worse. Scientists blame an asteroid more than six miles in diameter for wiping out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Cheng describes his project as straightforward. Didymos, Greek for “twin,” is actually two asteroids in one: a larger object with a smaller, moonlike rock circling it. And it is predicted to pass 6.5 million miles from Earth in 2022.

In 2021, Cheng’s laboratory would launch a spacecraft into the path of the smaller of the two bodies, which is 492 feet in diameter. Cheng expects the collision to knock the smaller asteroid from its established path around the larger one, an impact that he said can be charted from high-powered telescopes on Earth.

By targeting the smaller member of the “binary system,” the mission would produce “an orbital deflection which is both larger and easier to measure” than if it hit an asteroid circling the sun, according to the ESA’s preliminary report last year.

A timeline of the Mars rover Curiosity through its two-year mission on Mars.

“It is important to note that the target Didymos is not an Earth-crossing asteroid, and there is no prospect that the deflection experiment would create an impact hazard,” the agency said in its report, which Cheng helped draft.

Finding asteroids is not just about danger; it is also about research. Cheng said the second spacecraft would measure the crater caused by the crash and look for additional details about the composition and nature of the asteroid.

“You have to do something pretty spectacular to move it,” Cheng said.

— Bloomberg Government



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
Play Videos
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Learn to make this twice-baked cookie
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
Play Videos
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
The art of tortilla-making
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.