NASA launches ‘suicide’ spacecraft to deflect asteroid off course | Space News

NASA has launched a mission to deliberately crush a spaceship onto an asteroid – a test if humanity ever stops a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth.

It might sound like science fiction, but the DART – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – is a true proof of concept experiment. It took off at 10:21 p.m. on Tuesday (06:21 GMT Wednesday) aboard a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Space Force base in California.

The goal is to slightly alter the trajectory of Dimorphos, a “moonlet” about 160 meters (525 feet) wide that surrounds a much larger asteroid called Didymos 762 meters (2,500 feet) in diameter. The pair revolve around the Sun together.

The impact is expected to take place in the third quarter of 2022, when the binary asteroid system is 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) from Earth, almost the closest point on record.

“What we’re trying to learn is how to deflect a threat,” NASA lead scientist Thomas Zuburchen said of the $ 330 million project, the first of its kind.

To be clear, the asteroids in question pose no threat to the planet. But they belong to a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which approach within 48 million kilometers (30 million miles).

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is particularly interested in those taller than 140 meters (460 feet), which have the potential to level cities or entire regions with several times the energy of a bomb. nuclear medium.

There are 10,000 known near-Earth asteroids of this size or more, but none have a significant chance of hitting in the next 100 years. One big caveat: Scientists believe there are still 15,000 more such objects to be discovered.

Planetologist Essam Heggy said that while NASA’s mission looks like science fiction, the threat to the planet is real if the fate of the dinosaurs 80 million years ago is remembered.

“The chances of being hit by an asteroid again are far from science fiction,” he told Al Jazeera. “Asteroids 100 meters and above are a threat to Earth, and we need to quantify our deflection capacity in the face of these threats.”

Kick at 24,000 km / h

Planetary scientists can create miniature impacts in labs and use the results to create sophisticated models of how to hijack an asteroid – but the models still fall short of real-world tests.

Scientists say the Didymos-Dimorphos system is an “ideal natural laboratory” because terrestrial telescopes can easily measure the pair’s variation in brightness and judge how long it takes for the moon to orbit its big brother.

Since the current orbit period is known, the change will reveal the effect of the collision, which is expected to occur between September 26 and October 1, 2022.

Additionally, since asteroids’ orbit never intersects Earth, they are considered safer to study.

The DART probe, which is a box the size of a full-size refrigerator with limousine-sized solar panels on either side, will crash into Dimorphos at over 24,000 kilometers per hour (15,000 miles per hour).

Andy Rivkin, the leader of the DART investigation team, said the current orbital period is 11 hours and 55 minutes, and the team expects the kick to reduce that time by 10 minutes.

There is some uncertainty as to how much energy will be transferred by the impact, as the internal composition and porosity of the moon is not known.

The more debris generated, the more push will be given to Dimorphos.

“Whenever we show up on an asteroid, we find things that we don’t expect,” Rivkin said.

The DART spacecraft also contains sophisticated instruments for navigation and imaging, including the Italian Space Agency’s Light Italian CubeSat for Asteroid Imaging (LICIACube) to observe the crash and its aftermath.

“The CubeSat will give us, we hope, the snapshot – the most spectacular image of the impact of DART and the ejecta plume from the asteroid. It will be a truly historic and spectacular image, ”said Tom Statler, DART Program Scientist.

Armageddon scenario

The so-called “kinetic impactor” method is not the only way to deflect an asteroid, but it is the only technique ready to be deployed with current technology.

Other hypotheses have been put forward, including piloting a nearby spacecraft to transmit a small force of gravity.

Another detonates a nuclear explosion nearby – but not on the object itself, as in the Armageddon and Deep Impact movies – which would likely create many more perilous objects.

Scientists estimate that 140-meter asteroids strike once every 20,000 years.

Asteroids measuring 10 km (6 miles) or larger – like the one that struck 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of most life on Earth, including dinosaurs – all occur every 100 to 200 million years.

DART is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rock remnants of the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Last month, NASA launched a probe on a trip to the orbiting Trojan asteroid clusters near Jupiter, while the OSIRES-REx grab-and-go spacecraft is on its way back to Earth with a sample taken last October from the asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft is on a collision course with an asteroid in the first test to see if Earth can be protected from potentially disastrous impact by slightly altering the trajectory of a space rock [Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP]
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