Europe 's space chiefs have backed a suicide mission which will end in a head-on collision with an approaching asteroid.
Astronomers so far know of about 1,200 objects in space more than half a mile across which might one day collide with Earth.
An impact with a large object from space 65m years ago helped wipe out the dinosaurs. Even a much smaller object could cause widespread devastation. But so far, the interception of asteroids has happened only in Hollywood disaster movies.
The European Space Agency’s near-Earth object advisory panel has recommended high priority for a Spanish mission to smash into a distant asteroid.
“If you think about the chain of events between detecting a hazardous object, and doing something about it, there is one area in which we have no experience at all and that is interacting directly with an asteroid, trying to alter its orbit,” said Alan Harris, chairman of the advisory panel.
The mission, named Don Quijote, will use two spacecraft. One, called Sancho, will head for a target asteroid 500 metres (1,540ft) in diameter and go into orbit around it for at least seven months. It will drop detectors to measure the asteroid’s internal structure.
The second spacecraft, Hidalgo, will be launched at the same time but approach on a longer orbit - and smash into the asteroid at more than 22,000mph, while the first spacecraft watches the fireworks.
The collision would hardly stop the asteroid in its tracks but it might slow it on what could be a collision course with Earth.