Like many of his colleagues, Indian origin deep space navigator Shyam Bhaskaran devotes a great deal of time to crafting, and contemplating, computer-generated 3D models of asteroids.
But while many of his coworkers are calculating asteroids’ past, present and future locations in the cosmos, zapping them with the world’s most massive radar dishes, or considering how to rendezvous and perhaps even gently nudge an asteroid into lunar orbit, Bhaskaran thinks about how to collide with one.
“If you want to see below the surface of an asteroid, there’s no better way than smacking it hard,” Bhaskaran said.
“But it’s not that easy. Hitting an asteroid with a spacecraft traveling at hypervelocity is like shooting an arrow at a target on a speeding race car,” he said.
The term hypervelocity usually refers to something traveling at very high speed, two miles per second (6,700 mph / 11,000 kilometers per hour) or above. Bhaskaran’s hypothetical impacts tend to be well above.
“Most of the hypervelocity impact scenarios that I simulate have spacecraft/asteroid closure rates of around eight miles a second, 30,000 miles per hour [about 48,000 kilometers per hour,” Bhaskaran said.
In the majority of our solar system, where yield signs and “right of way” statutes have yet to find widespread support, hypervelocity impacts between objects happen all the time.
But all that primordial violence usually goes unnoticed here on Earth, and almost never receives scientific scrutiny.
“High-speed impacts on asteroids can tell you so many things that we want to know about asteroids,” Steve Chesley, a near-Earth object scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.
“They can tell you about their composition and their structural integrity, which is how they hold themselves together. These are things that are not only vital for scientific research on the origins of the solar system, but also for mission designers working on ways to potentially move asteroids, either for exploitation purposes or because they may be hazardous to Earth,” he said.
Currently, Bhaskaran is running simulations that make his virtual impactor go splat against the furrowed, organic-rich regolith of asteroid 1999 RQ36.
The 1,600-foot-wide (500-meter-wide) space rock is the target of a proposed JPL mission called the Impactor for Surface and Interior Science (ISIS).
The impactor spacecraft, which looks a little like a rocket-powered wedding ring, would hitch a free ride into space aboard the rocket carrying NASA’s InSight mission to Mars.
The impactor’s trajectory would then loop around Mars and bear down on RQ36.