SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and took off into the dark California skies early Wednesday morning, carrying a small probe that could teach NASA how to save Earth from dangerous asteroids.
NASA is not aware of any asteroids heading for Earth in the next 100 years. But the agency expects the huge space rocks to eventually approach our planet, and it has a plan to push them away.
A new spacecraft – a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – is testing this plan. Its only task is to crash into the center of a distant asteroid.
The probe, a box smaller than a golf cart, boarded the Falcon 9 at 1:21 am ET Wednesday. Once the rocket launches it into space, the DART spacecraft will spend about two hours deploying its solar panels.
If all goes smoothly, the probe will head towards a pair of asteroids. One of them, the moon called Dimorphos, revolves around the other, Didymos. DART targets a hole that is the size of a football stadium. It is set to reach its goal of 6.8 million miles from Earth in September 2022.
“We’re going to hit him hard, but we’ll hit him with a very small vehicle,” said Ed Reynolds, DART project manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory at a press conference on Monday.
“When we look at what it takes to deflect an asteroid away from Earth – if you have enough time, you can do big things with small vehicles.”
That push should be enough to push Dimorphos towards Didymos, forcing him to orbit the larger asteroid about 10 minutes faster than before – every 11 hours 45 minutes instead of every 11 hours 55 minutes.
If it succeeds, DART will prove that the technology can change the trajectory of dangerous asteroids. It will also provide NASA with valuable data on how the collision affects the asteroid and how large the probe needs to be in order to move the target.
“I could imagine, for example, that we have a number of such percussion devices – a small number – that are actually in orbit and ready to operate in the event of a threat,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA. kick-off press conference on Monday.
The last hour DART will make or destroy the mission
NASA does not track every space rock in the vicinity of the solar system. Astronomers have identified about 40 percent of nearby asteroids that are 140 meters wide or more – large enough to raze a city to the ground. Dimorfos, at 160 meters, is the perfect model for such an urban killer.
But apart from its size and the speed of rotation around Didyma, scientists know little about their purpose. They cannot see it directly with telescopes on Earth, instead gathering information from changes in the light of Didymos as moonlight passes between a larger asteroid and Earth.
Above: 160m diameter asteroid Dimorfos and the Roman Colosseum.
NASA won’t even know what shape the Dimorphos is until a DART camera sees it about an hour before the collision.
When Dimorphos comes into view, the spacecraft’s SMART Nav system is programmed to quickly calculate the center of an oncoming asteroid. The probe’s navigation system will then fire the engines to steer it towards the target.
During its last approach, DART is programmed to send a new photograph back to Earth every second. The small Italian spacecraft LICIACube is supposed to leave DART 10 days before the collision, fly close to the NASA probe and record the crash.
The spacecraft should hit the center of Dimorphos at 15,000 miles (24,140 km) per hour (4 miles, 6 km per second), transferring its kinetic energy to the asteroid and pushing it closer to Didymos.
NASA estimates the impact will cause a rock mass between 22,000 and 220,000 pounds (99,790 kg) to explode, which could give the asteroid even more impact than DART itself.
The European Space Agency plans to launch the next mission, Hera, to explore Didymos and Dimorphos in 2026. In addition to studying the consequences of the impact, Hera will map Dimorphos, accurately measure its mass and study the crater that DART leaves. there.
An asteroid shift only works if NASA has enough time to get to it
Experts previously told Insider that in order to use a DART-like mission to deflect an Earth-bound boulder, NASA needs five to ten years’ advance notice of an approaching asteroid.
This is because it takes years to design and build a spacecraft, and then months or years to get to an asteroid. What’s more, the probe will likely have to hit the asteroid a year or two before its orbit crosses Earth. The slight jolt from the impact of the spacecraft at first only knocks the rock slightly off course. But over time, this change carries him further and further from the Earth.
To identify dangerous asteroids with sufficient lead time, NASA is building a space telescope called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor to observe large asteroids orbiting the sun near Earth. NASA hopes the telescope will detect 90 percent of asteroids 140 meters or more.
“If we don’t find these objects that could pose a collision threat to the Earth – a danger to the Earth – there is nothing we can do about them,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary protection officer, said in a briefing on Monday.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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