NASA Envisions International Fleet of Apophis Reconnaissance Spacecraft

NASA Envisions International Fleet of Apophis Reconnaissance Spacecraft

NASA officials are encouraging the international space community to launch several small spacecraft to study the asteroid Apophis before it makes a close approach to Earth in 2029. It is more of a concept than a plan at this stage, but the idea is to get imagery and other data before the encounter to compare with data that will be acquired by another spacecraft — already in space — afterwards to add to the planetary defense knowledge base for the day an Earth-threatening asteroid is on its way.

Apophis will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029. Scientists have calculated and recalculated its orbit and are certain it poses no danger to Earth, but it will be visible with the naked eye in the Eastern Hemisphere and certain to capture the public’s attention.

Ground-based telescopes will get quite a view as it speeds by, but the planetary defense community wants much more data, especially before and after images to see how the interaction with Earth affects the 1,100-foot (340-meter) diameter asteroid.

At the 8th Planetary Defense Conference in Vienna, Austria last week, Bhavya Lal, NASA Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy and Strategy, explained the idea and its rationale. Speaking virtually, she called for a “small fleet” of spacecraft to do reconnaissance of Apophis before its date with Earth.

“Space agencies should work together to develop a small fleet of robotic spacecraft to go out ahead of April ’29 and meet the asteroid before its close approach to Earth.

“Nature has provided us with such a prime opportunity to demonstrate our space mission prowess, in this case to perform rapid reconnaissance of an approaching object that might be an impact threat. To learn all we can about it and inform any action we might need to take to mitigate potential disaster. … We believe protection of our planet from cosmic hazards is a global issue that affects the interests of more than any one nation.” — Bhavya Lal

In an interview today, Lal told that she was delivering an “inspirational” message on behalf of NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, not announcing a new NASA program. Mission concept studies are underway, but there is no funding in the current budget for such a mission.

However, the 2022 Decadal Survey for planetary science and astrobiology recommended just such a “rapid reconnaissance” mission. The Biden-Harris U.S. Space Priorities Framework asserts the United States will lead efforts “to enhance warning of and mitigation against potential near-Earth object impacts.” And just last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released an updated National Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan for Near-Earth Object Hazards and Planetary Defense.

Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer and head of the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, told today that there is plenty of time. A spacecraft could launch well into 2028 and still get there soon enough to do at least a flyby, though a rendezvous, where the spacecraft would go into orbit around Apophis, would take longer in order to complete the “gymnastics” needed to match the asteroid’s speed.

He said there is substantial interest in the planetary defense community and ESA already has some money allocated to the concept. Although there’s nothing in NASA’s current budget, he said they are looking at next year’s. Cubesats are a definite possibility, perhaps building on the success of Italy’s LICIACube that accompanied the DART mission when it impacted Dimorphos last year.

The science community is very excited about what they’ll be able to learn from Apophis’s close approach and annual conferences are being held as the clock counts down to 2029. “Apophis T-6 Years: Knowledge Opportunities for the Science of Planetary Defense” takes place next month. Johnson said that will be the next chance for the community to discuss and coordinate plans.  He thinks it “quite likely” at least one spacecraft will get to Apophis before April 2029.

Illustration credit: University of Arizona Lunar & Planetary Laboratory.

NASA already has a spacecraft that will observe Apophis after it passes by. The OSIRIS-REx mission is on its way back to Earth right now to deliver samples it collected from the asteroid Bennu. The sample return container will separate from the main spacecraft and land in Utah on September 24, but the main spacecraft will continue on an extended mission dubbed OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer or OSIRIS-APEX. It will rendezvous with Apophis and go into orbit for 15 months then use its thrusters to dig into the surface.

NASA and others in the planetary defense community also want to use Apophis’s close approach as an opportunity to educate people around the globe about the threats posed by asteroids. They plan to propose that the United Nations declare 2029 as the International Year of Planetary Defense. At last week’s Planetary Defense Conference, NASA’s Doris Daou laid out the objectives.

Source: Presentation by NASA’s Doris Daou at the 8th Planetary Defense Conference, Vienna, Austria, April 4, 2023. Screengrab.

It’s a lengthy process that will begin with a proposal to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS) perhaps next year.

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