December 8, 2021

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NASA will block the path of an asteroid “to protect humanity”

Via SudOuest.fr with AFP

This is only a costume rehearsal and the target asteroid is not a threat to Earth

This is a Hollywood worthy scene though real. NASA is preparing to carry out an unprecedented mission from Tuesday 23rd to Wednesday, November 24th: by launching a spacecraft at 24,000 km / h against an asteroid, hoping to help mankind change its orbit and find its way. Potential conflict in the future. NASA scientist Tom Statler, who took part in the mission, told a news conference that the experiment would be “historically significant.” “For the first time, humanity will change the movement of the natural celestial body in space.”

This is only a costume rehearsal and the target asteroid is not a threat to Earth. But the US space agency is taking this goal very seriously. It currently lists 27,500 asteroids of all sizes close to Earth, and NASA’s director of scientific missions Thomas Surbusen has promised that “none of them will represent a threat for the next hundred years.” But experts know only 40% of the 140-meter and larger asteroids, most of which have yet to be discovered. So the idea is to develop a mechanism to protect against it in the event of a future threat.

The mission, called DART (English: dart), will take off from the Vandenberg base in California aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 10:21 pm local Tuesday (6:21 am this Wednesday in France).

10 short minutes

Surrounded by two long solar panels, the ship is smaller than the car. It is about to hit an asteroid the size of a football field (about 160 meters in diameter), which will be located eleven million kilometers away from Earth, next fall, in about ten months. The asteroid is called Dimorphos and is actually a moon orbiting a large asteroid named Dimorphos (780 meters in diameter). To orbit the larger asteroid, DeMarpos currently takes 11 hours and 55 minutes. Scientists expect to reduce its orbit by about 10 minutes.

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“It’s a very small change but we need to redirect an asteroid that is in orbit to collide with Earth, even if we only occasionally find this asteroid,” Tom Statler explained. The exact effect of the impact is currently unknown, especially depending on the composition of the asteroid.

This precise change in trajectory, which will then be measured using telescopes from Earth, is what scientists want to determine. In the future, the results will be used in calculations to determine how much mass should be estimated against a given type of asteroid, in order to cause sufficient deviation.

Explosion

Are Dimorphos made of solid or more porous rocks? Scientists do not know, and the asteroid does not appear in the images sent by the ship until an hour before the collision. Its shape, round or elliptical, will be clear only 2 minutes ago. Then the explosion, and the silence of the radio.

The following images come from a small satellite developed by the Italian Space Agency. It will be released by the main ship ten days before the impact and will use its propulsion system to deviate slightly from its own trajectory.

Three minutes after the collision, in order to observe the effect of the shock, it flies over the dimples and, with a little luck, remains on the surface. The orbit of Didymus, the largest asteroid around the Sun, may also be slightly modified due to its gravitational relationship with the Moon. But the change is too small to measure. So the asteroid is unlikely to be placed in a dangerous new orbit for the blue planet.

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Total cost of the first interplanetary mission launched by Elon Musk for NASA – $ 330 million. Other techniques for orbiting an asteroid are considered. For example, by making a nuclear explosion near one of them, not to destroy it, but to divert its path through the ricochet. The gravitational force of a ship, flying long distances near an asteroid, can be used. But the technique tested here, known as kinetic impact, is much more mature. During this test it proved itself.