NASA launches test of deviating asteroid spacecraft

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

It may sound like science fiction, but the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is a true proof of concept experiment, taking off at 10:21 p.m. PT Tuesday (0621 GMT Wednesday) aboard a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Base. of the Space Force in California.

“All systems and weather are looking good for Falcon 9’s launch tonight,” Elon Musk’s company tweeted.

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

The impact is expected to take place in the fall of 2022, when the binary asteroid system is 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth, almost the closest point they have ever reached. .

“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.

COMING SOON: launch of the #DARTMission! ??

Our first test of #PlanetaryDefense is scheduled to take off at 1:21 am ET (6:21 am UTC) in an attempt to alter the motion of a non-threatening asteroid. Tune in at 12:30 AM ET (05:30 UTC) for live coverage: https://t.co/z1RgZwQkWS pic.twitter.com/qiOjrLLquM

– NASA (@NASA) November 24, 2021 To be clear, the asteroids in question pose no threat to our planet.

But they belong to a class of bodies known as near-Earth objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets that approach within 30 million kilometers.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is particularly interested in bombs over 460 feet, which have the potential to level cities or entire regions with several times the energy of average nuclear bombs.

There are 10,000 known near-Earth asteroids 460 feet or larger in size, but none have a significant chance of being hit in the next 100 years. A major caveat: Scientists believe there are still 15,000 more such objects to be discovered.

15,000 mph kick

Planetologists 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 impact, which is expected to occur between September 26 and October 1, 2022.

Additionally, since asteroids’ orbit never intersects our planet, they are believed to be 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 just over 15,000 miles per hour.

Andy Rivkin, head 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 period by about 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.

Nuclear explosions

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 460-foot asteroids strike once every 20,000 years.

Asteroids 10 km or longer, like the one that struck 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of most life on Earth, including dinosaurs, occur about every 100 200 million years old.

(AFP)

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