NASA gears up to deflect asteroid, in key test of planetary defense

A man sits at his workstation in the Mission Operations Center for the spaceship Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), wh

A man sits at his workstation in the Mission Operations Center for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spaceship, which is fast approaching its target.

Bet the dinosaurs wish they’d thought of this.

NASA on Monday will attempt a feat humanity has never accomplished before: deliberately slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid to slightly deflect its orbit, in a key test of our ability to prevent cosmic objects from killing life on Earth. destroy.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft launched from California last November is fast approaching its target, which will hit it at about 13,000 mph.

Surely neither the asteroid moon Dimorphos nor the big brother it orbits, called Didymos, pose a threat as the pair orbits the sun, passing some seven million miles from Earth on their closest approach.

But the experiment is an experiment that NASA considers important to conduct before an actual need is discovered.

“This is an exciting time not just for the agency, but in space history and frankly in human history,” Lindley Johnson, a planetary defense officer for NASA, told reporters in a briefing on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, the collision between the car-sized spacecraft and the 160-meter asteroid (160 meters or two Statues of Liberty) should occur at 7:14 p.m. Eastern Time (2314 GMT) and can be tracked on a NASA live stream.

By attacking Dimorphos head-on, NASA hopes to push it into a smaller orbit, cutting the time it takes to encircle Didymos, which is currently 11 hours and 55 minutes, by ten minutes. follow.

The proof-of-concept experiment will make reality what was previously only attempted in science fiction, especially movies like “Armageddon” and “Don’t Look Up.”

Graphic about NASA's DART mission to crash a small spacecraft into a mini asteroid to change its orbit as a test of every potential

Graphic about NASA’s DART mission to crash a small spacecraft into a mini asteroid to change its orbit as a test for potentially dangerous asteroids in the future.

Technically challenging

As the craft propels itself through space, flying autonomously for the final stage of the mission as a self-guided missile, the main camera system, dubbed DRACO, will begin beaming the first-ever pictures of Dimorphos.

“It starts as a small bright spot and eventually it zooms and fills the entire field of view,” said Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which organizes mission control in a recent briefing.

“These images will continue until they don’t,” the planetary scientist added.

Minutes later, a toaster-sized satellite called LICIACube, which separated from DART a few weeks earlier, will pass the site up close to capture images of the collision and the ejecta — the pulverized rock thrown by the impact.

The LICIACube photo will be returned in the coming weeks and months.

Also watch the event: a series of telescopes, both on Earth and in space — including the recently operational James Webb — that may be able to spot a brightening cloud of dust.

Finally, a full picture of what the system will look like will be revealed when a mission from the European Space Agency, called Hera, arrives four years later to survey the surface of Dimorphos and measure its mass, which scientists can currently only guess.

If DART succeeds, it is a first step towards a world capable of defending itself against a future existential threat, the plan said

If DART succeeds, it will be a first step towards a world capable of defending itself against a future existential threat, said planetary scientist Nancy Chabot.

To be prepared

Very few of the billions of asteroids and comets in our solar system are considered potentially dangerous to our planet, and none in the next hundred years.

But “I guarantee that if you wait long enough, there will be an object,” said NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.

We know that from the geologic records, for example, the six-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid that hit the Earth 66 million years ago and plunged the world into a long winter that led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, along with 75 percent of its species.

An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, on the other hand, would only have a regional impact, like destroying a city, albeit with a greater force than any atomic bomb in history.

Scientists also hope to gather valuable new information that can inform them more broadly about the nature of asteroids.

How much momentum DART gives to Dimorphos depends on whether the asteroid is solid rock, or more like a “garbage heap” of boulders bound by mutual gravity, a property not yet known.

We don’t know the actual shape either: whether it’s more of a dog bone or a donut, but NASA engineers are confident that DART’s SmartNav guidance system will hit its mark.

If it misses, NASA still has a chance in two years, with the spacecraft holding just enough fuel for one more pass.

But if it works, it’s a first step toward a world capable of defending itself against a future existential threat, Chabot said.


NASA will crash a spacecraft into a 525-foot-wide asteroid in September. Here’s how to watch it


© 2022 AFP

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