China announces new asteroid launch mission
China’s space agency plans to launch a spacecraft to slam an asteroid, launching it into a new – and hopefully safer – orbit. A possible new mission will be launched in the next four years, and was announced on Sunday by Wu Yanhua, deputy director of China’s National Space Administration, according to the official news outlet Global Times.
The country has not yet decided which asteroid to target. The mission was announced as part of a larger new planet defense effort, which will attempt to catalog and monitor nearby asteroids, especially those that could pose a threat to our planet. This effort will also include a new warning system. Finally, there are plans to send a spacecraft to identify and collide with an Earth-threatening asteroid, changing its orbit in the process. But there are still very early days and the project as a whole has not yet received formal approval – “it is being reviewed for approval,” the Global Times reports.
The idea seems to be floating around for a while. In January, a white paper published by Chinese officials mentioned plans to study the planet’s defense system, and last October, the country convened a planet protection conference, Andrew Jones reported for Space News. The Planet Protection Project will also set up software to simulate the effects of asteroids and conduct rehearsals of what to do in the event of a potential impact. (NASA and the European Space Agency have done the same.)
NASA has its own asteroid-redirection mission, launched in November. But the agency has not yet targeted any potentially dangerous space rocks. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is aimed at the dwarf lunar asteroid Dididmos. It will attempt to hit a space rock called Dimorphos on September 26, 2022. Data on that effect could help indicate future planetary protection efforts – if needed in the future.
Small space rocks hit our planet every day, raining as meteors and dust. These are the big rocks that space agencies like CNSA and NASA are most concerned about. Efforts to catalog objects close to Earth have already detected and tracked the vast majority of asteroids in our area (greater than 1 km). But small asteroids can still be catastrophic – and efforts are still being made to identify and track those rock fragments. That’s why China, the United States, and many other nations are interested in protecting the planet – not just what is happening, but how to stop it.