NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

NASA is about to crash into an asteroid

In a few days, the DART spacecraft will crash into an asteroid the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in an attempt to alter its trajectory. The project, which incorporates NASA’s planetary defense program, aims to test whether the method could be used in the event of a planned collision of an asteroid with Earth.

Straight into the wall

Launched in November 2021 by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, DART targets a pair of asteroids consisting of an 800-meter-wide main rock, around which a small asteroid about 140 meters wide rotates. Its goal will be to crash into the latter at more than 24,000 km / h in an attempt to change its orbit around the largest asteroid. The impact will happen in the night from 26 to 27 September close to close eleven million kilometers of the Earth.

To measure the aircraft’s impact, scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory will examine how long it takes the small moon to complete one revolution around its parent asteroid, before and after the impact. If the mission is successful, the team expects the small asteroid to complete its orbit in a shorter delay. To be sure, the researchers will use the Lowell Discovery telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In the next few days, several observation campaigns will also be carried out to learn precisely this binary system. ” The before and after nature of this experiment requires a thorough understanding of the asteroid system before doing anything about it.Observes Lowell Observatory astronomer Nick Moskovitz. ” We want to make sure that any changes we see are entirely due to DART“.

In other words, before the impact, researchers will need to be sure that the orbit has been changed by the impact itself and not by other factors. Sunlight could, for example, heat one side of the asteroid and thus slightly change its trajectory. In that case, the data collected after the impact would be distorted.

asteroid art
This illustration shows the possible shapes the asteroid could take on impact. Credits: Martin Jutzi

A preventive strike

To evaluate the consequences of this mission, a small CubeSat developed by the Italian space agency will also photograph the event detaching itself from the spacecraft a few days before the impact. Another spacecraft called Hera, developed by ESA, will be in charge of mapping the surface of the struck asteroid in four years, after the dust has dissipated.

NASA hopes DART will help gauge the effectiveness of hard-hitting spaceships against potentially dangerous asteroids. Ultimately, this data could also help develop a possible future mission to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

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