NASA and ESA team up for historic planetary defense test

Two space agencies plan missions to deflect an asteroid.

NASA and ESA team up for historic planetary defense test
ESA's Hera mission above asteroid 65803 Didymos. Credit: ESA/ScienceOffice.org
  • NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working together on missions to a binary asteroid system.
  • The DART and Hera missions will attempt to deflect and study the asteroid Didymoon.
  • A planetary defense system is important in preventing large-scale catastrophes.

It's not just a Hollywood exaggeration that an impact from an asteroid crashing into Earth would be massively catastrophic. Depending on the size of the asteroid, the effects could range from millions dead to an outright end of all life. Cities destroyed. Climate altered forever. Remember the dinosaurs?

To prevent such eventualities, space agencies around the world are working out planetary defense approaches. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have teamed up on a historic first-ever test of an Earth defense systems with missions aimed at knocking an asteroid off course.

The Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) project takes particular aim at an asteroid duo consisting of a 780-meter-long asteroid called "Didymos" and its smaller orbiting rock, dubbed "Didymoon." It's about the size of the Pyramid of Giza (160m across).

The plan of NASA's DART mission is to launch a probe in 2020-2021 which will get to Didymoon by October 2022. It will then crash into it while traveling at about 4 miles per second, moving it off previous course.

This NASA animation shows how the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) would target the smaller (left) Didymoon.

ESA's Hera mission of 2026 will land a cube satellite on Diddymoon after the impact to study what happened and whether the orbit of the asteroid around the bigger rock changed. The Hera probe, which will be launched in 2023, will also gather information on the mass and surface properties of the asteroid, as well as examine the crater left by DART. The CubeSat will likely land near the asteroid's poles.

"This will give us a good estimate of the impact's momentum transfer, and hence its efficiency as a deflection technique," expands Michael Küppers, the Hera project scientist. "These are fundamental parameters to enable the validation of numerical impact models necessary to design future deflection missions. We will better understand whether this technique can be used even for larger asteroids, giving us certainty we could protect our home planet if needed."

Mission Infographic.

Credit: ESA


The giant rocks do not currently present a danger to Earth and were chosen because they will be seven million miles away from our planet even at their closest point. Additionally, Didymoon, which will be the smallest asteroid ever visited, is useful to study because its size makes it a bigger risk. Such rocks are harder to track. If it was to crash into Earth, the ensuing disaster would be horrific on a regional scale.

The missions will also help us gain a better understanding of binary asteroid systems, which make up about 15% of detected asteroids. They will also test technology that may prove useful for the burgeoning field of asteroid mining.

Asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft from Earth 

Planetary Society

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast