On Monday, the US space agency NASA will embark on a feat humanity has never seen before by deliberately smashing a spacecraft with an asteroid to steer its course in a major test of humanity’s ability to prevent cosmic bodies from destroying life on Earth.
The Double Asteroid Reduction Test (DART) spacecraft launched from California last November and is fast approaching its target at 23,000 km/h. As for its size, it is smaller than the size of a car with a diameter of about 160 meters.
No need to panic. Neither the Demorphos asteroid nor the larger asteroid orbiting Didymus pose any threat, as they orbit the sun at their closest point from Earth at a distance of about seven million miles. But NASA felt it was important to accomplish this mission before it was actually needed.
“This is an exciting moment not only for the agency, but also for space history and human history,” Lindley Johnson, an official with NASA’s Planetary Defense Division, told reporters at a conference on Thursday.
And if all goes as planned, the collision between the spacecraft and the asteroid is expected to occur at 19:14 ET (23:14 GMT) and will be available to follow on NASA’s live stream.
By colliding with Demorphos, NASA hopes to push it into a smaller orbit that will save ten minutes from the time it takes to circle Didymos, which is currently 11 hours 55 minutes. the following days.
This experience will turn into reality what has been tried before only in science fiction, especially in movies like Armageden and Don’t Lock Up.
In order to hit such a small target, the vehicle will cruise autonomously during the last four hours of flight, like a self-guided missile.
Their “Draco” camera will take the first images of the asteroid, whose shape is still unknown (round or rectangular…) at the last moment. It will be visible directly on Earth at a frame rate of one frame per second, with a delay of only about 45 seconds.
Minutes later, a shoebox-sized satellite called LICIACube, which left Dart two weeks ago, will pass by the site to capture images of the impact and the crushed rocks ejected by the impact. LICIACube images will be sent in the coming weeks and months.
Also, a group of telescopes on Earth and in space, including “James Webb,” will be watching this event and be able to see a bright dust cloud.
Finally, the European Hera probe, scheduled for launch in 2024, will closely monitor Demorphos in 2026 to assess the consequences of the collision and calculate the asteroid’s mass for the first time.
there is a threat
In the solar system Earth belongs to, very few billions of asteroids and comets are considered a threat to the planet, and none of that will happen in the next 100 years.
But “I guarantee something will happen if you wait long enough,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief scientist.
So far, about 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been observed near Earth (they are called near-Earth objects, meaning that their orbits intersect with the orbit of the human planet). And it finds about three thousand new species every year.
According to scientists, almost all asteroids that are a kilometer or more long have been observed. But they estimate they can only detect about 40% of asteroids that are 140 meters or longer and have the potential to devastate an entire region.
If the dart misses its target, the car will have enough fuel for another attempt in two years. But if it succeeds, Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said it will be the first step towards a world that can defend itself against an existential threat in the future.