26 January 2012
They can be mean and nasty, and they can mess up our planet big time.
They are near-Earth objects, dubbed NEOs, celestial flotsam such as asteroids or comets that can, and have, scored direct hits on our humble home planet.
A new international consortium has been launched to address the impact threat to Earth, but, more pointedly, to organize, prepare and implement mitigation measures.
Called NEOShield, the European Commission is providing a significant amount of euros to support the initiative. The undertaking consists of research institutes, universities and industrial partners in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain, as well as in the U.S. and Russia.
The primary aim of NEOShield is to investigate in detail the three most promising asteroid threat-reduction techniques: kinetic impactors, gravity tractors, and the explosive blast-deflection method.
That's the crux of the undertaking as spelled out by Alan Harris, a senior scientist and NEOShield project leader at the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof, Germany.
The DLR is the coordinating partner for the multiyear NEOShield project and is set to roll out the plan this week.
"The scientific side of this will include the analysis of observational data on NEOs and laboratory experiments in which projectiles are fired at asteroid surface analog materials with different compositions, densities, porosities and structures," Harris told SPACE.com. "We need to understand how the momentum transfer from a kinetic impactor to an asteroid depends on the physical characteristics of the asteroid."
In this week's meeting, specialists from Europe, for example, will draw upon their past kinetic impactor work on the European Space Agency's study of a mission tagged as Don Quijote — an idea for an asteroid-deflection precursor mission drawn up several years ago.
NEOShield work will employ sophisticated computer modeling and simulations. Those will enable researchers to scale up knowledge and apply that information to a real-case scenario that calls for a spacecraft-deployed impactor slamming into a real asteroid in space...