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Ian Carnelli and Alan Fitsimmons ESA
Sciences Space

Ian Carnelli & Alan Fitsimmons: could humans prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth?

We often hear about humans traveling to space. But what about when space comes to us? This week on our podcast Les Explorateurs, we’re featuring two stories from the European Space Agency.

As anyone who's heard of the dinosaurs knows, an asteroid collision with Earth could be catastrophic. But it turns out it's also something we can prepare for.

This week, we’re featuring two stories, one in English and one in French. Ian Carnelli and Alan Fitsimmons are working at the European Space Agency on the Hera mission, which aims to figure out how we could deflect asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth. It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie, but it’s a real project that has the potential to do something we can’t for any other natural disaster: prevent it entirely.

Ian is the director of the mission and has an engineering background, and Alan is an astronomer working on the project — and both have absolutely contagious enthusiasm for space and for the possibilities of science.

Hear how they got hooked on space, why this kind of project depends on collaboration and why studying asteroids can teach us about our own planet.

Listen below!

Eros Asteroid NASA
The first picture ever taken of an asteroid, Eros, which Ian saw online as a kid. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Ian Carnelli – “An asteroid impact is the only natural disaster we can avoid” (in French)

“In one of life’s coincidences, it was the scientist who led the mission that explored Eros, which I’d seen when I was 14. He told us, “I have an idea: what if you tried to hit an asteroid that wasn’t actually an asteroid by itself, but the moon of a binary asteroid…” We realized that he’d actually found the magic solution.”

Ian Carnelli is in charge of the program for the preparation of future space missions at the European Space Agency (ESA). An aerospace engineer, he has been involved for the last 12 years designing several space mission projects for the diversion of potentially dangerous asteroids. Since 2015 he has been leading a team of scientists and engineers within the Hera planetary defense mission and Asteroid Impact Mission, an interplanetary probe project to test a deviation technique called “kinetic impact”, conducted in collaboration with NASA.

Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater, in Arizona (USA), which Alan visited while studying comets and asteroids.

Alan Fitsimmons – “Asteroids are time capsules from our solar system” (in English)

“I'm standing on the lip of this huge hole [Meteor Crater], over a kilometer across, several hundred meters deep, formed when, 49,000 years ago, a small asteroid, only 50 meters across, entered our atmosphere, reached the ground, exploded with the force of many, many nuclear weapons and made this crater. And I thought, wow, this is incredible. I knew asteroids were important, and they are important scientifically. I thought, this is also important. How often does this happen? How many of these things are there out there?”

Alan Fitsimmons is an astronomer in the QUB Astrophysics Research Centre and a member of the Solar System Group. His primary research interests are in performing observations of minor bodies in our solar system, comets and asteroids. These studies are generally based on observations performed on the UK supported telescopes in the Canary Islands (ING) and Chile (ESO), although for the past few years he has also been looking at data from Pan-STARRS 1.

Les Explorateurs (The Explorers) is a podcast about how real people are making the future they want to live in.

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