The Chinese space agency plans to send a spacecraft to collide with an asteroid, knocking it into a new — and hopefully safer — orbit. The future new mission will be launched within the next four years and was announced Sunday by Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, according to Global timesa state-run news channel.
The country has not yet determined which asteroid to target. The mission was announced as part of a larger new planetary defense effort, which will seek to catalog and monitor near-Earth asteroids, especially those that could pose a threat to our planet. The effort would also include a new warning system. Ultimately, the plan is to identify an asteroid that could threaten Earth, and send a spacecraft to crash onto it, changing orbit. But it is still very early and the overall project has not yet been formally approved – it is being “reviewed for approval”. Global times reports.
The idea seems to have been circulating for a while. In January, a white paper published by Chinese officials mentioned plans to study a planetary defense system, and last October the country hosted a planetary defense conference, Andrew Jones reported for Space news† The planetary defense project would also set up software to simulate asteroid impacts, and hold rehearsals of what to do in the event of a potential impact. (NASA and the European Space Agency have run similar simulations.)
NASA has its own asteroid bypass mission, which launched in November. But the agency isn’t targeting potentially threatening space rocks just yet. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is aimed at the small moon of an asteroid called Didymos. It will attempt to knock the space rock called Dimorphos off course on September 26, 2022. Data from that impact could help inform future planetary defense efforts — in case they’re ever needed in the future.
Every day small space rocks hit our planet and rain down like meteorites and dust. It’s the larger rocks that space agencies like CNSA and NASA are more concerned about. Efforts to catalog near-Earth objects have already found and tracked the vast majority of large (larger than 1 km) asteroids in our vicinity. But smaller asteroids could still be catastrophic — and efforts to identify and track those chunks of rock are still underway. That is why China, the US and many other countries are interested in planetary defense – everyone wants to know not only what is going to happen, but also how to stop it when that happens.