MIT system predicts the best way to divert a terrestrial asteroid

20 Février, 2020, 20:37 | Auteur: Therese Cote

MIT engineers have devised a framework that will help decide what type of mission would be the most successful to deflect Earth-threatening asteroids.

An MIT team led by former MIT graduate student Sung Wook Paek describe a "decision map" in newly published research that would take into account the mass and relative momentum of an approaching asteroid, as well as the expected time we have before it enters into a so-called "keyhole" - basically a gravitational halo around Earth that, once entered, all but guarantees the asteroid will collide with the planet. REXIS, an instrument designed and built by students at MIT, is also part of this mission and its task is to characterise the abundance of chemical elements at the surface.

Their method can be utilized to develop the optimal mission campaign and configuration to redirect a PHO (also known as a potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid).

"People have mostly considered strategies of last-minute deflection when the asteroid has already passed through a keyhole and is heading toward a collision with Earth", the expert said. The simplest is a single kinetic impactor, which we would fire into the object shortly before it reaches a keyhole to push it off course. Its like a preemptive strike, with less mess.”.

Paeks co-authors at MIT are Olivier de Weck, Jeffrey Hoffman, Richard Binzel, and David Miller. The missions they thought of are those which involved a standard kinetic impactor, in which a missile is fired into outer space to nudge an asteroid off track.

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These new mission possibilities include a basic kinetic impactor to deflect the asteroid off-course, sending a scout first to measure the asteroid before building a projectile to hit it away, and sending two scouts - one to measure and one to hit it slightly off its path before a larger projectile is launched. To see precisely what the number of potentially unsafe space rocks we've been missing, specialists from the Netherlands built an AI network to examine the information and see what it could discover.

“A keyhole is like a door — once its open, the asteroid will impact Earth soon after, with high probability, ” Paek says.

For Apophis and Bennu, such things were measured as the distances between each asteroid and their respective gravitational keyhole, as well as the "safe harbor" region, the time when the asteroid would need to be deflected to avoid disaster. If we knew five or more years in advance that Apophis was headed for a keyhole, we could send a scout and small impactor, followed later by a large impactor.

If the pass through the keyhole takes place in a year or less, the researchers determine that it would be too late to prepare a security measure with this plan.

The analysis points out there are two points at which we could attempt to stop an asteroid destined to hit Earth, one of which would be much easier but requires additional planning. “Weve created a decision map which can help in prototyping a mission.”.

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