On September 26, 2022, a milestone was reached in the history of space exploration. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, aimed at defending the planet from potential asteroid impacts, reached its climax by crashing into Dimorphos, the moon of the binary system Didymos. It was a true “planetary defense” mission, as NASA described it at the time.
Now, China is following in NASA’s footsteps with its own planetary defense mission. The target is asteroid 2019 VL5, an Aten-class asteroid with an orbit that brings it close to Earth. China’s plan is similar to the DART approach but with some relevant differences. The aim is to impact a spacecraft against the asteroid to alter its trajectory, followed by a second spacecraft to document the results and evaluate any changes. This will be done with the support of ground-based telescopes and the Xuntian space observatory, scheduled to begin operations in 2024.
China’s plans have been known for about a year, but new details have emerged, including the target asteroid and launch date. Chen Qi, from China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory, revealed at a conference in Austria that the mission is scheduled to launch in 2025, using a Long March 3B rocket with two spacecraft. The first will observe the asteroid and evaluate its topography, followed by the deliberate collision of the second spacecraft at a relative speed of 6.4 kilometers per second.
China’s planetary defense mission is a significant development in the global effort to safeguard the Earth from potential asteroid impacts. With more countries investing in this area, it is hoped that a comprehensive planetary defense system can be developed to protect the planet from future threats.