Cyprus Mail

How we might help to shift an asteroid

A Nasa diagram showing how the asteroid shifting will work

By Jean Christou

Cyprus appears to be on track to help save the planet… at some point in the future, maybe… if the Earth is ever in danger of being hit by a wayward asteroid… and if the cryptic words of George Danos, the head of the Cyprus’ Space Exploration Organisation (CSEO) lead to ‘something’ that’s clearly in the works.

His comments last Tuesday at the Overseas Cypriots conference in Nicosia appeared to hint at something big, but 20 minutes of his speaking time was consumed by an overrun speech on hydrocarbons by Energy Minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis so Danos’ comments were rushed in the ten minutes he was left with.

When he eventually spoke, he didn’t let that slide. “Our island does not just sit on a great energy reserve, one of the greatest reserves is our people’s brains and above all our youth,” he told attendees. “And no, we have not yet given our spacecraft a name. Care to suggest one?” he asked participants at the conference.

What spacecraft?

“I know more but I can’t say,” Danos told a Cybc current affairs programme on Thursday. A couple of hours earlier he had told the Sunday Mail he was referring to Cyprus’ role in a Nasa mission and his comment had referred to giving “our part of the mission a name”.

What Danos could confirm is that Cyprus is being given a role in an ambitious plan slated for 2022 or thereabouts to hit an asteroid with a spacecraft in an attempt to see if they can throw it off track. Before that, in 2020, another spacecraft will be dispatched to rendezvous with the Nasa intercept craft, and monitor and record the event. The mission is a joint one between Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA). The latter’s job is to provide the monitoring craft.

What Danos can say, is that Cyprus’ role in the mission is not just a matter of sending observers to Nasa like before or merely to provide power parts or software. It involves work that will take place on the island, bringing jobs and hosting experts.

“This [the mission] is very important, not only for us but for the world,” he said.

Technical issues still need to be addressed such as timing and participation however. “The extent of Cyprus’ participation hasn’t been determined yet but it will not just involve sending some observers to Nasa,” he said.

“Much of the work is expected to be done in Cyprus, a substantial part of the mission. It’s up to us to engage successfully as this would be a huge benefit to the island. We are proud to participate in this.”

Would it involve building a spacecraft or part thereof on the island by any chance?

“I can’t say more,” says Danos.

He had told the Overseas Cypriots conference: “This is CSEO’s first space mission into outer space.”

Danos defended the CSEO as not just “a local group of space enthusiasts” and “dreamers”. CSEO was a multinational organisation whose council was comprised by top experts from across the world including top Nasa scientists, he said.

George Danos has high hopes for Cyprus’ role in Nasa-ESA project

According to Nasa, research indicates that the best technique to use to divert an asteroid from its impact course with Earth is scenario-dependent. That is, the choice of method for impact mitigation depends on the orbit of the object and its composition, bulk properties and relative velocity, as well as the probability of impact and the predicted impact location.

Some NEOs (Near Earth Objects) could be in orbits that are especially hard to reach unless located many years to decades in advance of impact.

Some asteroids are essentially rubble piles, making them difficult to “push on” without breaking them up, while others could be coherent monolithic bodies. Some are too small or fragile to reach the surface of Earth such as the asteroid that disintegrated over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, and would not warrant a mitigation mission but rather emergency response planning, Nasa says.

Yet, despite the slim to nil chance of an asteroid hitting the Earth in the foreseeable future – less than a 0.01 per cent in the next 100 years – it has happened in the past and it is inevitable that it will happen again.

“One of the major threats to intelligent life in our universe is the high probability of an asteroid colliding with inhabited planets,” physicist Stephen Hawking said in November 2016. “Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years. By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”

In the meantime, that doesn’t stop the internet doomsday machine from reaching Defcon 1 each time an asteroid comes close. The latest will be Asteroid Florence, which Nasa says will pass safely by Earth on September 1 at a distance of about 4.4 million miles or 7.0 million kilometres, or about 18 Earth-Moon distances. Florence is among the largest near-Earth asteroids at about 2.7 miles or 4.4 kilometres in size. It last passed in 1890 and won’t pass again until 2500.

Asteroid Florence was discovered by Schelte “Bobby” Bus at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia in March 1981. It is named in honour of Florence Nightingale. It will be visible in small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.

The mission: making history 

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) 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 how to change the path of an asteroid in space. It involves two independent spacecraft: Nasa’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), and ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). The DART mission is managed by Nasa while AIM is managed by the ESA.

AIDA’s target is the near-Earth asteroid Didymos, approximately 800 metres across, and a secondary body or ‘moonlet, whose 150-metre size is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose a more common hazard to Earth.

The DART spacecraft will deliberately crash itself into the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6 km/s or “nine times faster than a bullet”. The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one per cent, enough to be measured using telescopes on Earth. By targeting the small moonlet, the AIDA mission ensures that there is no chance the impact could inadvertently create a hazard to Earth.

The AIM spacecraft, with its extensive array of scientific instruments, will arrive at Didymos before DART’s impact, and manoeuvre to a safe distance to observe and record the impact.

“This unique double mission scenario calls for the launch of ESA’s AIM spacecraft in October 2020, leading to a rendezvous with the Didymos system in May 2022,” says Nasa. It’s DART spacecraft will launch in late December 2020 and intercept Didymos’ moonlet in early October 2022, when the Didymos system is within 11 million kilometres of Earth.


An artist’s impression of an asteroid near earth

How asteroids were first discovered

On the first day of the year 1801, Italian astronomer Gioacchino Giuseppe Maria Ubaldo Nicolò Piazzi found a previously uncharted “tiny star” near the constellation of Taurus. The following night Piazzi again observed this newfound celestial object, discovering that the speck had changed its position relative to the nearby stars. Piazzi knew that real stars were so far away that they never wandered – that they always appeared in the sky as fixed in location relative to each other.

Due to the movement of this new object, the astronomer to the king of the two Sicilies suspected he had discovered something much closer – something within our solar system. Piazzi made history’s first asteroid discovery. He named it after the Roman goddess for agriculture: Ceres.

Even a half-century after Ceres’ detection, there were only 15 known asteroids. But as time marched on, so did astronomers’ equipment, techniques and interest in hunting asteroids. By 1868 the number of known asteroids had reached 100. By 1923 it was 1,000. Today, it is more than half a million. June 30 is International Asteroid Day.

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