NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

When the DART ship hits its target asteroid on September 26, a small Italian satellite will position itself at a good distance to capture the scene. This weekend, LICIACube, that’s his name, successfully separated from his mothership to prepare for his mission as a photographer.

Two American missions fascinate space lovers this September. On the one hand, we have the long-awaited Artemis 1 mission, which could be launched on 23 September. Three days later, NASA will also make headlines when it hits an asteroid head-on with its DART mission. The US agency therefore hopes to change its trajectory.

Note that this is just a demo mission to test the kinetic impact technique. In the event of a real threat to Earth, a similar and broader mission could be deployed.

A mini satellite to capture the scene

The mission will focus on a pair of tandem objects consisting of a 780-meter-diameter asteroid called Didymos, around which a smaller (160-meter diameter) asteroid orbits. The DART spacecraft aims to crash into this small moon. To immortalize the scene, the mission leaders integrated a small satellite called LICIA Cube. Developed by the Italian space agency, the device was successfully deployed this Sunday, September 11th.

In the next fifteen days LICIACube will therefore continue on its own with the aim of placing itself at a good distance from the impact, about a thousand miles from the stage. Closer, the satellite could be hit by the debris generated by the impact; also couldn’t take good pictures.

The event will be [vu] as an increase in the brightness of the target by comparing the images of Dimorphos taken before and after the impact“, Explains Elena Mazzotta Epifani, spaceship of the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF).

LICIACube will then carry out a quick overflight of the scene about three minutes after the impact, positioning itself at a minimum distance of about fifty-five kilometers of the surface of the affected object. The small satellite will then send the images to Earth, but Elena Mazzotta Epifani warns that it will probably take several weeks to get all the data.

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The DART ship now sees its target. The small asteroid evolves around the asteroid Didymos. The goal will be to reach it at more than 24,000 km / h in an attempt to change its trajectory. Credits: NASA

Still many unknowns

In the following weeks, astronomers will also observe the system from the ground up close to determine if the orbit of the little moon has changed as expected. According to the team, the shock should be able to do that accelerate its orbit of a few tens of seconds. To find out, simply measure the intervals between the periods of short attenuation that occur when the two asteroids eclipse.

Astronomers also do not know how much material will be thrown by the impact into space or the size of the crater in which DART could excavate. And for good reason, the mission team knows very little about the composition of this small asteroid.

We know the general properties of the surface of the largest asteroid – Didymos – from ground-based spectroscopic and photometric measurements. However, we know next to nothing about Dimorphos, which is too small to produce an effect distinct from that coming from the main body.“, Continues the researcher.

However, scientists believe it is just a “pile of rubble”: a conglomerate of rocks once detached from the main asteroid Didymos, which is now held together only by gravity. The results of the impact may or may not confirm these suspicions.

Finally, note that another ship called Hera, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), will be responsible for mapping the surface of the affected asteroid. Initially the plane had to arrive on site before impact to inspect the system, then observe the accident and study its consequences in detail. ESA still plans to launch HERA, but the spacecraft will not reach the system before 2027 (mission postponed for budget reasons). In the meantime, the dust generated by the impact will have had time to dissipate.

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