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NASA is preparing to deflect an asteroid in a key test of planetary defenses

NASA is preparing to deflect an asteroid in a key test of planetary defenses
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A man sits at his workstation in the Mission Operations Center for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, wh

A man sits at his workstation in the Mission Operations Center for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft as it rapidly approaches its target.

Bet the dinosaurs wish they’d thought of that.

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

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft launched from California last November and is fast approaching its target, which it will hit at about 14,000 miles per hour (23,000 km/h).

Of course, neither the asteroid moon Dimorphos nor its orbiting big brother Didymos pose a threat as the pair orbit the Sun and are about seven million miles from Earth at closest approach.

But the experiment is one that NASA has deemed important before an actual need is discovered.

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

If all goes according to plan, the impact between the car-sized spacecraft and the 530-foot (160 meters, or two Statues of Liberty) asteroid should take place at 19:14 p.m. Eastern Time (2314 GMT) on September 26 and may be tracked on a NASA live stream.

By hitting Dimorphos head-on, NASA hopes to put it in a smaller orbit, cutting the time it takes to orbit Didymos by ten minutes, which is currently 11 hours and 55 minutes — a change coming in the Days later by ground telescopes will follow.

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

Graphic about NASA's DART mission where a small spacecraft crashes into a mini asteroid to change its trajectory as a test of possible potential

Graphic about NASA’s DART mission, where a small spacecraft crashes into a mini-asteroid to change its trajectory as a test for potentially dangerous asteroids in the future.

Technically sophisticated

As the vehicle moves through space, it flies autonomously for the mission final stage Like a self-guided missile, its main camera system, called DRACO, will begin beaming down the very first images of Dimorphos.

“It will start out as a small point of light and then eventually zoom in and fill the entire field of view,” said Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is hosting mission control in a recent briefing.

“These images will continue until they don’t anymore,” he added planetary scientists.

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

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

Also watching the event: a number of telescopes, both on Earth and in space – including the recently commissioned James Webb – that may be able to see a brightening dust cloud.

Eventually, a full picture of what the system looks like will be revealed when a European Space Agency mission called Hera arrives four years later to probe Dimorphos’ surface and measure its mass, which scientists can only guess at the moment.

If DART succeeds, it will be a first step toward a world capable of defending itself against a future existential threat, Plan said

If DART succeeds, it will be a first step toward 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 or so years.

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

We know this from geological records — for example, the six-mile-wide asteroid Chicxulub struck Earth 66 million years ago, plunging the world into a long winter that resulted in the mass extinction of dinosaurs along with 75 percent of species.

In contrast, an asteroid the size of Dimorphos would only have regional effects, such as devastating a city, albeit with greater force than any other atomic bomb in the history.

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

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

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

If it misses, NASA will have another shot in two years, with the spacecraft holding just enough fuel for another pass.

But if it succeeds, 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


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Citation: NASA Prepares to Deflect Asteroids, in Key Planetary Defense Test (2022, September 23) Retrieved September 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-nasa-gears-deflect- asteroid-key.html

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