Wild Apophis asteroid spacecraft concept would loft tiny, laser-driven probes for 2029 flyby
These NASA radar images show the asteroid Apophis on March 8 and 9, 2021, as it passed within 10. An early-stage mission concept could see laser-driven light-sail probes visit a notorious asteroid. The space rock Apophis, which poses no threat to Earth whatsoever for at least 100 years, will make a harmless but very close flyby of our Earth in 2029. But 2029 might be just enough time to squeeze out a few more mission ideas. Among the presentations was one describing an idea to test out a rapid launch scenario in case of impending trouble, not that we have found any asteroids to worry about yet.
The May 12 presentation, by Paul Blase of small satellite startup Space Initiatives Inc. One spacecraft would release above the thickest part of the atmosphere at 46 miles (75 kilometers), while the other would release at the rocket's maximum altitude of 930 miles (1,500 kilometers). The first 3D-printed probe would impact the asteroid, while the second would observe the impact plume with a spectrometer, Blase explained. "This is only a gram," he said of the impacting spacecraft's mass, "so it's not going to do much. He estimated it would only take five years to put the mission together.
Testing an asteroid rapid-response capability will be critical for planetary defense one day, Blase said. The team envisions having these little laser-driven craft on standby to rapidly approach a hazardous space rock and redirect it. While this early-stage and so-far unfunded proposal is not associated with the ambitious Breakthrough Starshot that hopes to reach the Alpha Centauri system in a few decades, Blase said his team's laser craft would serve as a help for that mission's planning. For example, the laser array necessary for the asteroid mission would be tens of megawatts instead of gigawatts, meaning testing could occur at a smaller scale for feasibility.
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