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Asteroid Impact Avoidance System

If an asteroid hits, the consequences are clear. The Barringer Crater in Arizona is 1,200 meters wide and was produced by an asteroid 50 meters in size. Credit: Stefan Seip/DLR via EMI

Big bang. Spacecraft hurls impact probe at asteroid. Image Credit: ESA

The worrisome thought of an asteroid hitting the Earth is not science fiction – and our planet has the scars to prove it.

What scientists are focused on today is how best to deal with a space rock that has Earth’s name on it.

Joining in on the global research concerning such counter-measures are scientists from Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut, EMI, in Freiburg, Germany. They are Europe’s largest application-oriented non-profit research organization.

The institute is a member of the European Union-funded NEOShield consortium, helping to flesh out an asteroid impact avoidance system. Teams of experts are working to blueprint concepts designed to help avert space rock impacts and to alter the orbits of asteroids as they race toward Earth.

One solution would be to launch a space probe that would strike the asteroid at high speed. Scientists from Fraunhofer EMI are helping to research the foundations of this technique.

Target practice

Asteroids are typically made of porous materials, so the first step is to build up a basic understanding of what happens when materials like that are hit by a foreign object, explains Frank Schäfer, head of the spacecraft technology group at the institute.

A key tool in the work is use of a light gas gun at EMI within one of the fastest accelerator facilities in the world. The gun’s roughly one-and-a-half-meter barrel can hurl millimeter-sized pellets at speeds of almost 10 kilometers per second. That equates to a speed of around 36,000 kilometers per hour. That’s over 22,000 miles per hour!

The Fraunhofer scientists use what is known as a target chamber to bombard stone blocks used to approximate asteroids with a high-velocity mini projectile. The aim is to analyze with as much precision as possible how the material reacts. High-speed cameras document the experiment by taking up to 30,000 pictures per second.

In the long term, NEOShield project leader, Alan Harris from the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Planetary Research, said he would like to see the defense techniques that are the subject of this research evaluated in international space missions.

“This kind of test mission is bound to throw up a few surprises…and will teach us a great deal,” Harris added in an EMI press statement.

By Leonard David

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