Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Karina de Castris
European Space Agency

How to intercept an asteroid

Asteroid 2001 TW229
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

ESA's Advanced Concepts Team has recently announced the winner of a highly unusual competition that could one day save thousands of lives. The challenge was to find the best way to intercept an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

"Ask ten engineers for the best orbit for a particular spacecraft and you'll get ten different ideas," explained Dario Izzo, a researcher in the Advanced Concepts Team.

The ESA contest asked engineers to calculate a trajectory that would enable a spacecraft to intercept near-Earth asteroid 2001 TW229. (This object was chosen for the purposes of the competition. It actually presents no danger to our planet.) The key to success was to find a flight path that would deliver as much energy as possible to the asteroid. This would enable the spacecraft to push the intruder off course long before it became a real threat.

12 teams from the US, China, Russia and Europe submitted their best solutions. The top ranked entry came from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, closely followed by two Spanish teams. The amazing winning trajectory involved seven flybys of the Earth, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. It ended with a spectacular head-on collision between the spacecraft and the asteroid.

On 2 February, the teams met in the Netherlands to discuss the methods they used and to identify those that hold the most promise. The Advanced Concepts Team hopes to run more competitions in the future in order to further stimulate research in the exciting field of mission analysis.