NASA’s Mission to Protect Humanity

This week will mark the 48th anniversary of the historic first landing on the moon, what has been to now NASA’s greatest accomplishment. But what the space agency is engaged in now may be of even greater significance.

For decades, those with little concept of the future economic, scientific and national security needs of the U.S. have questioned support for NASA. Now that it is clear that humanity may need the space agency to literally save it from extinction, perhaps some of those opponents of the space agency will reassess their perspective.

Mariette Le Roux, writing for the Phys.Org site, notes that “Throughout its 4.5-billion-year history, Earth has been repeatedly pummeled by space rocks that have caused anything from an innocuous splash in the ocean to species annihilation. When the next big impact will be, nobody knows…‘Sooner or later we will get… a minor or major impact,’ Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany [said.] …the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high… the next impact could well ring in the end of human civilization.”

Max Wehner, writing for BGR, notes that even something less than an extinction-level event, such as that which wiped out the Dinosaurs, would be catastrophic. “Asteroids are the most clear and present threat that our Solar System poses to us, and you only need to look at the scars on the Earth, our moon, and other planets in our neighborhood to see exactly how real that danger is… a Queen’s University Belfast researcher is warning that the Earth is definitely going to be hit, it’s just a matter of when.The expert, Alan Fitzsimmons, points out that an event similar to that of the 1908 meteoroid explosion over the Tunguska region in Russia’s Siberia — which leveled a forest and damaged buildings but didn’t result in any human deaths — could happen again, and if it did happen over a major city, the results would be devastating.”

NASA has taken up the issue. Its’ JPL division asked last October, “What would we do if we discovered a large asteroid on course to impact Earth?…” that was the high-consequence scenario discussed by attendees at a NASA-FEMA tabletop exercise. The third in a series of exercises hosted jointly by NASA and FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the simulation was designed to strengthen the collaboration between the two agencies, which have Administration direction to lead the U.S. response. “It’s not a matter of if — but when — we will deal with such a situation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.”

Now, NASA is attempting to take significant steps to defend the planet from that very real threat, and is testing means to protect Earth from an asteroid impact. A key early step is the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission. According to the space agency . “The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment  mission concept is an international collaboration among the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, Observatoire de la Côte d´Azur (OCA), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL).

“AIDA will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impact technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. AIDA is a dual-mission concept, involving two independent spacecraft – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), and ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). The DART mission is in Formulation Phase A, led by JHU/APL and managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.  AIM, managed by ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) is in Preliminary Definition Phase B1.

“AIDA’s primary objective is to demonstrate, and to measure the effects of, a kinetic impact on a small asteroid. Its target is the binary near-Earth asteroid (65803) Didymos, which consists of a primary body approximately 800 meters across, and a secondary body (or “moonlet”) whose 150-meter size is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose a more common hazard to Earth.

“The DART spacecraft will achieve the kinetic impact by deliberately crashing itself into the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6 km/s, with the aid of an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software. The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, enough to be measured using telescopes on Earth. By targeting the small moonlet in a binary system, the AIDA mission plan makes these precise measurements possible and ensures that there is no chance the impact could inadvertently create a hazard to Earth.”

In an effort to enhance NASA’s role and invigorate America’s bid to return to space leadership, President Trump issued an executive order on June 30 re-establishing the National Space Council, to be led by Vice President Mike Pence.