The European Space Agency has announced that it will finally — finally! — give the business of asteroid deflection a go. You know, before a really, really big one is careening toward Earth and we're out of time. So, what's the plan?
Right now, the ESA's strategy is pretty brutal: it would aim a high-speed impact spacecraft traveling at six miles a second and weighing around 1,100 pounds at the offending asteroid, and simply smash into it hard enough to divert its course. Of course, every asteroid is its own dangerous snowflake that needs to be approached differently, and even if the craft does manage to do some good here, a larger 'stroid would take a vessel of increased mass to shake it out of its path of destruction.
The target the ESA is shooting for is 99942 Apophis, a 1,600-foot-wide near-Earth asteroid which has caused some consternation in the past. It's said to have a chance of around one in 250,000 of hitting Earth in 2036.
The agency has dubbed the mission "Don Quijote" after Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes's tale of the bumbling, windmill-jousting knight-errant. The impact spacecraft will be named Hidalgo, another word for a Spanish gentleman and one that was applied to Don Quixote, and it will be accompanied by an orbiting spacecraft named Sancho — Quixote's pressed-upon squire — which will monitor the collision and any changes in the asteroid's path.
If Don Quijote's course stays true, the ESA could try at the deflection shot as soon as 2015.