There are fears that a flagship mission to investigate how to deflect asteroids, in the event we may one day have to do so to save our planet, will never see the light of day.
The Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) was to be part of a groundbreaking joint initiative between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. But today, ESA announced AIM was effectively dead in its current form, although it may live on in another capacity.
The decision to curtail the mission was announced at ESA’s Ministerial Council, where ministers from ESA member states met to discuss funding for various missions.
Prior to this meeting, all the focus was on the ExoMars rover. This was the second part of the broader ExoMars mission, planned to launch in 2020 and arrive in 2021. The first part arrived earlier this year, which consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander.
The failure of the latter, though, had led some to question whether the rover would receive funding, as it would be using similar technology to attempt to land on the surface. That does not seem to have been an issue.
But what has arisen, somewhat unexpectedly, is the cutting back of AIM in its current form. Although details aren’t completely clear at the moment, it seems ESA did not give AIM the funding it needed to continue as requested, although it may still proceed in one form or another.
AIM would have been part of the broader Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA). The proposal was for AIM to launch in October 2020, and enter orbit around an asteroid called Didymos. Then, in October 2022, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft would have slammed into the asteroid, and AIM would have studied the resultant change in trajectory.
The change was expected to be tiny, but enough to be noticeable. And, aside from the scientific usefulness of such a mission, it was thought that this would have served as a good test for the future, if we ever needed to deflect an asteroid that was on a collision course with Earth.
"It's a sad day for planetary defense,” Grigorij Richters, co-founder of the Asteroid Day movement, which seeks to educate people of the dangers asteroids pose to our planet, told IFLScience. “Missions like AIM are critical. We need to test technologies to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids.”
What will happen to the broader AIDA mission is unclear. At the time of writing, NASA had yet to respond to a request to comment on the development. If AIDA never sees the light of day, though, it will be a huge shame.