China to target near-Earth object 2020 PN1 for asteroid deflection mission

HELSINKI — China has set its sights on near-Earth object 202 PN1 as the target for a combined asteroid deflection and observation test mission due to launch in 2026.

The new details of the near-Earth asteroid defense system demonstration and verification test mission were presented by Long Lehao, chief designer of China’s Long March rocket series, in a recent “Science and Innovation China” series lecture (video in Chinese).

A slide presented by Long indicates that the impactor mission will launch in 2026 on a Long March 3B rocket. The mission will include a separate impactor and orbiter. The former will impact near-Earth object 2020 PN1 with the latter spacecraft making observations.

If correct, the mission appears to combine elements of the separate NASA DART mission, due to collide with Dimorphos, a moon orbiting the near Earth asteroid Didymos, in September, and the European Space Agency’s Hera mission, which will observe Didymos and Dimorphos later this decade to determine the effects of the DART collision.

Combined, the DART and Hera missions are known as the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) collaboration.

The target for China’s test, 2020 PN1, is an Earth-crossing asteroid and a temporary co-orbital companion to the Earth. It was discovered in 2020 and estimates of its size put it at around 40 meters in diameter.

The Long March 3B launcher is a workhorse for missions to geostationary orbit but has also launched lunar robotic lander missions.

China earlier announced plans in April to attempt to alter the orbit of a potentially threatening asteroid with a kinetic impactor test as part of plans for an entire planetary defense system.

Long’s lecture however provides the first details regarding the mission target and profile, which differentiate it from earlier proposals. 

Chinese researchers had previously published papers on concepts for kinetic impactors, namely the Assembled Kinetic Impactor” (AKI) using a Long March 5, and the more complex “Enhanced Asteroid Deflector,” which would first collect rocks from a near-Earth asteroid before impacting a potentially hazardous asteroid. 

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) also stated in April that it will establish an early warning system and develop software to simulate operations against the near Earth objects and test and verify basic procedures.

Long’s lecture also touched on exploration missions, including Tianwen-2, a near-Earth asteroid sample-return mission, the Tianwen-3 Mars sample-return, and a Jupiter system mission. 

It also reiterated plans for a two-launch mission to put a pair of Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030, a new methane-liquid oxygen heavy-lift rocket and reusable launchers, and future propulsion concepts including nuclear propulsion and a spaceplane.

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