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Europe's space agency kicks off asteroid collision mission

Scientists begin investigations on whether it's possible to send small shuttles into space with the goal of smashing into and diverting oncoming asteroids.

Art rendering of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Mission concept. European Space Agency

Doomsday isn't far from many people's imaginations, whether it's the end of the Mayan calendar, the rapture, or a massive asteroid smashing into the Earth. Now, one of these far-flung scenarios may become even less likely.

The European Space Agency announced this week that it's in the beginning phases of an "Asteroid Impact and Deflection Mission" with its U.S. partner Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The eventual goal of the mission is to verify whether scientists can collide with an asteroid that's hurtling through space -- so as to avoid any possible impact with Earth.

"Concepts are being sought for both ground- and space-based investigations, seeking improved understanding of the physics of very high-speed collisions involving both man-made and natural objects in space," the ESA wrote in a statement.

The eventual plan is for scientists to shuttle off two small spacecraft in 2020 in pursuit of a 2,625-foot binary asteroid named 65803 Didymos, according to The Verge. Didymos is reportedly traveling side-by-side with a smaller 500-foot twin asteroid.

Using the smaller asteroid as target practice, scientists will point one of the spacecraft at the flying rock and collide with it. The other spacecraft will be in charge of surveying the damage and seeing if the impact changed the course of the twin asteroids.

"Both missions become better when put together -- getting much more out of the overall investment," the ESA's Asteroid Impact and Deflection Mission study manager said in a statement about the benefits of using two spacecraft. "And the vast amounts of data coming from the joint mission should help to validate various theories, such as our impact modelling."

The possibility of an asteroid crashing into Earth isn't actually that far-out of an idea. In 2004, NASA scientists discovered a massive 22 million ton asteroid that was well on course to hit the planet in 2029. However, after copious research, scientists concluded Earth was safe from an impact scenario. NASA also recently ruled out another possible 2036 asteroid collision with Earth.