Patrick Michel — “Like Christopher Columbus Discovering A New Territory”

Dr Patrick Michel, pictured, will be in Luxembourg for Asteroid Day Live on 30 June (Photo © CNRS)

Asteroids are packed with information about the origins of our solar system but studying them is not as simple as one might think. Patrick Michel, research director at France’s national research center CNRS explains.

So the good news is that we don’t have any identified threats in the astral population that we know of. Statistics for the other ones are still very low. It’s not totally zero, but probability is low. The good thing is that this is one of the only natural risks that we can mitigate and prevent with means which aren’t crazy. We are implementing the means in order to eventually have a plan which means creating inventories of all the threatening objects. That inventory of objects larger than 140 metres in size (the threshold for damages to a regional zone) should be done before 2040 with NASA. 

The second is prevention. We have HERA, the first asteroid deflection test mission working with DART  [editor’s note: ESA mission HERA, which launches in October 2024 will perform a detailed post-impact survey of the target asteroid, Dimorphos – the orbiting Moonlet in a binary asteroid system known as Didymos] and hopefully there will be other ones. And then in parallel, we are working on a robust international coordination plan so that future generations do not have to improvise. Like with the Covid-19 virus, improvising is not the best option, because then you are not prepared. And in the case of a big asteroid, you cannot take this risk because this is a threat for the whole of humanity. 

So we shouldn’t see a situation like in the movie, Don’t Look Up?

If it happened now, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be at this stage. Because we have this problem of credibility of the scientists. I often go on TV and I’m asked a question that I need to answer in two minutes, between two news items which are totally different subjects. And the public is going from one news article to another. 

I found this to be a good movie for raising the alarm about the craziness of how the media works and the fact that not only media but also the public need to understand that nothing is black or white. Things are complex and to expect a quick answer on complex problems is not the best approach because then you take the easy solution and that’s how you get the extremes in politics. That’s one of the challenges that we have.

“The point is to understand what they tell us about the origin of our solar system, and also what is the role of asteroids in the emergence of life on earth.”

Patrick Michel, director at France’s national research center CNRS

What’s interesting is that when you go to see an asteroid, you don’t know what you’re going to find. And it’s so exciting because when you get the first image you really feel like Christopher Columbus discovering a new territory, except this territory is 300 million kilometres away from Earth. We went from the time where we were discovering continents on earth to discovering new continents, very far away. And most often they have nothing to do with our assumptions. So this is where also for the engineers, we have to be very flexible, because we tell them our assumptions, they design the mission based on these assumptions and when we arrive on site, the assumptions are wrong and they have to revise their strategy entirely. That was what happened with Hayabusa 2, a research mission, where the asteroid we discovered was covered with boulders. So in a few months, they had to think about the new strategy and you cannot get back to your spacecraft. 

Where could new space startups play a larger role in asteroid exploration?

There are a lot of innovations which are required because we need to really improve our tool designs for interacting. There are many challenges. The first one is close proximity operations, because when we go to see a small body and in particular, if you want to extract resources, you need to interact with them and do live or close proximity operations in an environment where gravity is not uniform. 

These are the kinds of scenarios where you need to improve your capabilities of autonomous navigation for instance, because if you go far away at some point, you cannot control your spacecraft. You also need to have machine learning for instance, surface tracking, recognition. There is also what to do in terms of how to interact, and I know there are a lot of startups looking into that. Some of them unfortunately don’t have the knowledge of the difficulties. 

Besides financial gain, what can and will Earth gain from the exploration of asteroids? 

I am Science Team Co-I of the sample return space mission Hayabusa 2 (JAXA, Japan)  [editor’s note: which arrived on the Ryugu asteroid in 2018]. There are two samples that we already analysed in which we identified more than 20 amino acids. The point is to understand what they tell us about the origin of our solar system, and also what is the role of asteroids in the emergence of life on earth. The two samples are carbon rich, rich in organic material, and water and we want to check what this organic material looks like whether it’s compatible with our organic matter. Because according to some scenarios developed by my team in Nice, at the end of the earth’s formation we predicted there were a lot of asteroid impacts. And maybe these impacts brought the elements that made life emerge. 

Dr Patrick Michel is a planetary scientist and research director for the CNRS, principal investigator for the Hera Mission with the European Space Agency. In addition to his current duties at CNRS, Dr Michel is also the PI of the ESA Hera mission that will measure the deflection of the secondary of a binary asteroid as a result of the impact of the NASA DART spacecraft in 2022. He is also PI of the project NEO-MAPP (Near-Earth Object Modeling and Payload for Protection) funded by the H2020 program of the European Commission and co-PI of the CNES-DLR rover that will be deployed by the JAXA MMX mission on Phobos, one of the Martian moons, in 2026. Dr Michel also serves on several committees including the Space Program Committee (SPC) of CNES and the NEOMAP Committee (Near-Earth Object Mission Observatory Panel) of the European Space Agency. Hear Dr Michel speaking during Asteroid Day Live on 30 June.

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