China will launch an impactor spacecraft to alter asteroid trajectory

The mission will be similar to NASA's DART last year, though it will target a smaller asteroid that orbits near Earth.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a near-Earth asteroid.
An artist's impression of a near-Earth asteroid.

buradaki / iStock 

China has announced it will launch a planetary defense mission to a small, near-Earth asteroid called 2019 VL5.

Chen Qi from China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory announced the mission's target during a presentation at the 8th IAA Planetary Defense Conference in Vienna, Austria, last week, a SpaceNews report reveals.

If all goes according to plan, the mission will be the second planetary defense test to collide with an asteroid following NASA's DART mission last year.

China's planetary defense mission

2019 VL5 is a small asteroid measuring roughly 108 feet (33 meters) in diameter that orbits the Sun roughly once every 365 days, meaning it often comes close to Earth.

Though it's classified as a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) by NASA, it isn't categorized as a potentially hazardous space rock, as simulations show it won't impact Earth in the foreseeable future.

China's planetary defense test mission to 2019 VL5 is scheduled to launch in 2025 aboard a Long March 3B rocket. Much like NASA's DART mission, China's planetary defense mission will include an observer spacecraft and an impactor spacecraft that will collide with the 2019 VL5 to alter its movement.

In a report from the Chinese state media outlet CCTV in November last year, Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program, explained that each spacecraft would follow a separate trajectory. The observer will reach 2019 VL5 first to analyze the space rock and study its topography. Meanwhile, the impactor will arrive a little later and collide with the asteroid.

Altering an asteroid's trajectory

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) hopes to alter the 2019 VL5's trajectory by 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters). Over the course of three months, this would change the asteroid's path by 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

After the collision, the observer spacecraft will come around for follow-up observations. China's Xuntian space telescope will likely also take observations of the asteroid after the impact.

CNSA first announced the mission last year, alongside plans for developing a planetary defense system that would include an early warning alarm system for potentially hazardous asteroids headed for Earth.

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