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NASA’s DART Spacecraft Crashing Onto An Asteroid Could Someday Save Humanity

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A cosmic collision is imminent more than 6.5 million miles from Earth.

In a unique maneuver, a NASA spacecraft will deliberately slam into an asteroid to test whether bending a space rock could one day protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic impact.

The crash is scheduled for 7:14 p.m. ET Monday. Live report will be broadcast NASA TV starting at 6:00 PM ET.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will help determine whether intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to change its course.NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

The mission, known as DART, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, will attempt a method of planetary defense that can save Earth from an asteroid on a possible collision course with the planet. It’s a rare opportunity to conduct a realistic experiment on an asteroid that poses no threat to Earth, said Bruce Betts, the chief scientist at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that conducts research, advocacy and outreach to advance space exploration. promote .

Betts called the DART mission “a major step forward for humanity,” saying it will not only help scientists assess one of the most popular ideas for planetary defense, but also provide an exciting way to raise awareness about the need to plan ahead for such circumstances.

“What makes this natural disaster different is that if we do our homework, we can really prevent it,” he said. “That’s a huge difference from many other large-scale natural disasters.”

The purpose of the DART probe is a space rock called Dimorphoswhich is 525 feet wide and orbits a much larger, 2,500 foot wide asteroid called Didymos.

On Monday, the Dimorphos spacecraft will crash at a blistering speed of about 4 miles per second, or 15,000 mph. The goal isn’t to obliterate the asteroid, but to see if the collision can alter the space rock’s nearly 12-hour orbit.

In a true planetary defense situation, even a relatively small push can change an asteroid’s orbit enough to keep Earth clear, Betts said.

“It depends on the size of the object and how much warning time you have, but indeed you only need to change the trajectory a little bit,” he said.

Composite of 243 images taken by DRACO on July 27, 2022, detecting Didymos.
A composite of 243 images taken by DRACO that Didymos detected on July 27.JPL DART Navigation Team

The DART probe, which is about the size of a small car, will be destroyed during the maneuver, but a small Italian-built Cubeat deployed as part of the mission will be able to assess the immediate aftermath.

The small satellite, known as LICIACube, will fly within 25 to 80 miles of Dimorphos a few minutes after the crash, Dan Lubey, the LICIACube navigation leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement — “close enough to get good views of the impact and ejecta plume, but not so close that the ejecta could hit the LICIACube.”

Telescopes on the ground will be used to time Dimorphos’ orbit and determine whether the mission was a success. A follow-up expedition developed by the European Space Agency will study the impact crater on Dimorphos and provide more detailed investigations into the asteroid system. That mission, known as Hera, is scheduled for 2024.

“We want to know what happened to Dimorphos, but more importantly, we want to understand what that means for potentially applying this technique in the future,” said Nancy Chabot, the DART coordination leader at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. University, in a news story. information this month. The Applied Physics Lab built and managed the $325 million DART mission for NASA.

According to NASA, no known asteroid larger than 450 feet has a significant chance of impacting the planet in the next 100 years, but the agency has said only a fraction of smaller objects have been found near Earth.

The agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is involved in the search for near-Earth objects that could be dangerous to the planet, including objects that venture within 5 million miles of Earth’s orbit, and objects that are large enough to cause significant damage if they hit the surface.

Even if the DART mission fails, scientists will learn a lot from the experiment, said Andrea Riley, a program director at NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

“If it’s missing, it still provides a lot of data,” Riley said in the press conference. “That’s why we’re testing. We want to do it now rather than when there’s a real need.”

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