China’s space agency plans to send a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid and place it into a new, and hopefully safer, orbit. The prospective new mission will launch within the next four years and was announced on Sunday by Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, according to global timesa state media.
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. Eventually, the plan is to identify an asteroid that could threaten Earth and send a spacecraft to crash into it, changing its orbit in the process. But it is still very early and the general project has not yet been formally approved; is “being reviewed for approval.” global times reports.
The idea seems to have been around 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 install software to simulate asteroid impacts and conduct rehearsals of what to do in the event of a possible impact. (NASA and the European Space Agency have run similar simulations.)
NASA has its own asteroid redirection mission, which took off in November. But the agency isn’t targeting any potentially threatening space rocks just yet. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) targets the small moon of an asteroid called Didymos. It will try to deflect the space rock, called Dimorphos, on September 26, 2022. Data from that impact could help inform future planetary defense efforts, should they ever be needed in the future.
Small space rocks hit our planet every day, raining down as meteorites and dust. It is the larger rocks that space agencies like CNSA and NASA are most concerned about. Efforts to catalog near-Earth objects have already found and tracked the vast majority of large (greater 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 ongoing. This is why China, the US and many other nations are interested in planetary defense: they all want to know not only what is coming, but also how to stop it when it happens.