On Friday a meteor exploded high above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia shattering glass and injuring 1,158 people. This unexpected event occurred the same day that asteroid 2012 DA14 passed within 17,000 miles of Earth, closer than the orbit of many communications satellites. The two events were unrelated but they both highlight the potential threat of an asteroid impact. Both NASA and private organizations (two asteroid mining companies and a non-profit) are planning missions to learn more about near-Earth asteroids so that future impacts can be predicted and possibly prevented.
NASA will launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to pluck samples that could better explain our solar system's formation and also aid our understanding of asteroids that can impact Earth. The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth. After traveling three years, OSIRIS-REx will approach the primitive, near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2019. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. RQ36 is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of six football fields.
The B612 Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the Earth from asteroid collisions. The Mountain View, Calif. based group is composed of former astronauts, scientists and engineers. On June 28, 2012, the Foundation announced its plans to build and operate the first privately funded, launched, and operated interplanetary mission – an infrared space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun to discover, map, and track asteroids whose orbits approach Earth and threaten humanity.Sentinel is a space-based infrared (IR) survey mission to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters.
Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries and two private companies with plans to survey and eventually mine near-Earth asteroids. Both companies are developing spacecraft which could be helpful in discovering and characterizing potentially hazardous asteroids. Planetary Resources is currently designing and building Arkyd-100 Space Telescopes which can detect small asteroids. Deep Space Industries is developing the Firefly, a small spacecraft that can do close-up imaging of asteroids to determine their size and composition. Several of the tiny spacecraft in orbit could act as a sentry line. David Gump, CEO of Deep Space Industries, said: “Placing ten of our small FireFly spacecraft into position to intercept close encounters would take four years and less than $100 million. This will help the world develop the understanding needed to block later threats.”