Project Apophis

Published in MIT News on June 1, 2017, by Meg Murphy, School of Engineering

Space Systems Engineering students design a close-range mission to a giant asteroid that will fly by Earth in 2029.

Alissa Michelle Earle is rehearsing in front of her class. She stands before a presentation slide, and reads: “Mission Motivation: Apophis is coming!”  

“It’s not going to impact Earth but it’s going to come very close to us,” explains Earle, a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Apophis is an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier that will come within 5.5 Earth radii in 2029. As part of 16.83 (Space Systems Engineering), Earle is one of 20 students tasked with designing a space mission to measure the asteroid's internal structure and potential long-term impact hazard.

Professor of planetary sciences Richard Binzel is leading 16.83 with David Miller, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who recently returned to MIT after serving as chief technologist for NASA. Inspired by Apophis, the professors teamed up to issue MIT students a challenge: Build a major science robotics mission that marries planetary defense with scientific learning.

The ingenuity of their MIT students soon blew Binzel and Miller away. Early on, the pair advised NASA colleagues of the project and invited their participation in a series of design reviews. As Miller notes, “Both Rick and I have a rolodex at NASA, and as the class progressed, the audience for our reviews grew bigger and bigger..."

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