Scientists plan to launch an attack on an asteroid. The joint US-European Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission will crash a spacecraft into one of a pair of binary asteroids to know if this could change the path of the object.
The mission, which was discussed at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2015 in Nantes, France, is being planned as a preparation in case an asteroid would actually come hurtling towards Earth.
Such an event could potentially wipe out life in the planet. An asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The prehistoric impact killed 75 percent of all living species at the time and is believed to have set off a period of volcanic eruptions.
NASA has said that the chance of a "Potentially Hazardous Asteroid" hitting Earth over the next century is less than 0.01 percent, but scientists are not taking any chances as proven by the AIDA mission.
The plan is to target the smaller of a pair of asteroids, the egg-shaped "Didymoon," which is about 525 feet (6300 inches) in diameter.
Ground-based observations suggest that Didymoon, which orbits the larger diamond-shaped Didymos asteroid every 12 hours, is likely a chondrite, a stony asteroid that was formed of dust from the early solar system.
With the AIDA mission set for launch in October 2020, scientists would know if it is possible for an asteroid threatening to collide with Earth and wipe out human civilization to be deflected.
"We will gain insight into the kind of force needed to shift the orbit of any incoming asteroid, and better understand how the technique could be applied if a real threat were to occur," said Ian Carnelli, from ESA.
The mission is composed of two sub-missions. The first involves ESA's Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) monitoring craft, which will orbit Didymoon and gather data such as the asteroid's mass and density.
The second mission involves the NASA-led Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, which will impact with the asteroid in October 2022.
AIM will move to a safe distance during the impact, but it will continue gathering data. It will provide scientists with information about the crater produced by the collision as well as changes, if any, in the asteroid's orbit.
"To protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts, we need to understand asteroids much better - what they are made of, their structure, origins and how they respond to collisions," said ESA scientist Patrick Michel. "Aida will be the first mission to study an asteroid binary system, as well as the first to test whether we can deflect an asteroid through an impact with a spacecraft."