This illustration shows the DART spacecraft approaching two asteroids, Didymos and Dimorphus, with a small sounding spacecraft nearby.Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben .
Caption toggle Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben
nuclear bomb. This is the go-to answer to incoming space objects like asteroids and comets as far as Hollywood is concerned. Movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon rely on nuclear weapons to save the world and deliver drama.
But planetary defense experts say the reality is that if astronomers spot a dangerous space rock, the safest and best answer is more clever methods, like smashing it with a small spacecraft and pushing it off course. said it could be.
That’s exactly what NASA is trying to do, when the spacecraft is scheduled to hit the asteroid on Monday at 7:14 PM ET.
The impact is the culmination of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a $300-plus effort that launched a spacecraft in November 2021 to test humanity’s first planetary defense technology.
“This is really about asteroid deflection, not destruction. This is not going to blow up the asteroid,” said Nancy Chabot, DART coordinating leader at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. . It’s like “drive a golf cart through the Great Pyramids”.
Tweak Space Rock trajectory
The target asteroid, called Dimorphus, is about 7 million miles away and poses no threat to Earth. It is about 525 feet across and orbits another larger asteroid.
NASA officials stress that there is no way their tests would turn either of these space rocks into a threat.
Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “Scientifically it’s not possible for conservation of momentum and other reasons.”
Instead, the collision should slightly reduce the time it takes for Demorphos to orbit its larger asteroid brethren. The DART impact alters Demorphos’ orbit, bringing it closer to a large asteroid and shortening her one-paced orbit to 11 hours and 45 minutes.
These two asteroids are so far apart that telescopes perceive them as a single point of light that dims and brightens as Dimorphus orbits. Images from the DART spacecraft’s cameras give scientists their first chance to see the asteroid about to hit.
In fact, the rover’s on-board navigation system initially targets a large, easy-to-find asteroid, only switching attention to Demorphos for the final hour of the mission.
The space agency broadcasts images from its doomed spacecraft in real time on its website. Demorphos grows larger and larger as the spacecraft hurtles toward it at about 14,000 miles per hour. At the moment of impact, the image suddenly stops.
But a small spacecraft nearby is watching and sending images back to Earth the next day. Telescopes on all seven continents and even space telescopes like James Webb will watch the impact and its aftermath for weeks, making observations that allow astronomers to measure exactly how the asteroid’s orbit changed. increase.
Additionally, in a few years, the European Space Agency will send a mission called Hera to this double asteroid system to help scientists gather even more information about the effects of the collision.
All of this should shed light on how asteroids respond to deliberate pushes, and scientists can use that information to help make contingency plans for future threats. can do.
“In short, it’s great,” says Ed Lu, executive director of the Asteroid Institute, a program run by a nonprofit dedicated to planetary defense. “One day we will find an asteroid that is likely to hit the Earth, and we will want to deflect it.”
In that case, Lu said:
Many Asteroids Still Undiscovered and Tracked
Still, those working on the DART mission seem to understand that their project can sound a bit far-fetched.
Tom Statler, a scientist with NASA’s DART program, said: “This was the stuff of sci-fi books when I was a kid, a very corny episode of Star Trek, but now it’s real. It’s amazing to be there, and it’s a harbinger of the future of what we can do.”
NASA tracks many cosmic rocks, especially large rocks that could trigger extinction-level events. Thankfully, nothing threatens the planet right now. But no asteroid the size of Demorphos has yet been discovered, and a collision could destroy a city.
As such, NASA’s Office of the Planetary Defense Coordination wants to launch the space telescope NEO Surveyor for asteroid exploration. It could launch in 2026 or 2028, depending on how much funding Congress allocates.
“What we have to do is know what’s out there, what’s coming, and have enough time to prepare for it,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer. .
He says such a telescope could give Earthlings warnings that space rocks are in a dangerous path for years, decades, or even centuries. . Simply fly next to the asteroid of interest and use gravity to gently pull it away.
All of which, Johnson notes, is very different from how Hollywood usually portrays saving the planet.
“They have to make it exciting. The asteroid was discovered just 18 days before it hit and everyone’s running around with their hair on fire,” he says. not.”
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