United States.- NASA will try on Monday a feat that mankind has never before achieved: Deliberately crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to slightly deflect its orbit, a key test to demonstrate the ability to prevent cosmic objects from destroying life on Earth.
The dart mission (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) launched from California in November and is fast approaching its target, which It will impact at about 23,000 kilometers per hour.
To be sure, neither the asteroid Dydimos nor Dimorphos, the small asteroid that orbits it, pose a threat, as both revolve around the Sun, passing billions of kilometers from Earth. But this experiment is considered important by NASA, which wants to do it before there is a real need.
“It’s an exciting timenot just for the agency, but for space history and human history,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, said at a briefing Thursday.
If everything goes according to plan, the impact between the spacecraft -the size of a car- and the 160-meter asteroid -equivalent to two Statues of Liberty- will take place at 23:14 GMT on Monday and can be followed in a live broadcast from NASA.
When hitting Dimorphos head-on, NASA hopes to push it into a lower orbitreducing the time it takes to circumnavigate Didymos by ten minutes, currently 11 hours and 55 minutes, a change that will be detected by ground-based telescopes in the following days.
The experiment will make something only done in science fiction come trueparticularly in movies like “Armageddon” and “Don’t Look Up.”
a technical challenge
As the ship moves through spaceautonomously in the final phase of the mission, like a self-guided missile, its main camera system, called DRACO, will begin transmitting the first images of Dimorphos.
“It will start out as a small point of light and eventually expand and fill the entire field of view,” said Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which houses mission control.
Minutes later, a toaster-sized satellite called LICIACube, which separated from DART a couple of weeks ago, will pass by the site to capture images of the collision and the pulverized rock thrown up by the impact.
The LICIACube shots will be sent back in the following weeks and months.
There will also be a number of telescopes, both in the earth as in space, observing the event, including the James Webb, the most powerful and recently put into orbit.
Ultimately, a full picture of the system will be revealed when a European Space Agency mission called Hera arrives in four years’ time to survey Dimorphos’ surface to measure its mass, something scientists can currently only guess at.
future existential threat
Very few of the billions of asteroids and comets that are in the solar system are considered potentially dangerous for the Earthand none in the next hundred years.
But “I assure you that if you wait long enough, there will be one,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief scientist.
That is known from the geological record. For example, the Chicxulub asteroid almost ten kilometers wide hit Earth 66 million years agoplunging the world into a long winter that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs along with 75% of the species.
A Dimorphos-sized asteroid, by contrast, would only cause a regional impact, such as devastating a city, albeit with greater force than any nuclear bomb launched so far.
Scientists also hope to obtain new information and valuable information on the nature of asteroids in general.
The amount of motion DART generates over Dimorphos will depend on whether the asteroid is solid rock or a “garbage heap” of rocks held together by mutual gravity, a property that is not yet known.
Its actual shape is also unknown: whether it is more like a dog bone or a doughnut, but engineers at the POT they are confident that DART’s SmartNav guidance system will hit the mark.
If it fails, the POT he will have another chance in two years, as the spacecraft contains enough fuel for another attempt.
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But if it is successful, then it will be a first step in the world being able to defend itself against a future existential threat, Chabot said.
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