NASA to crash $330M spacecraft into asteroid to see if impact can alter course – The Guardian
In just weeks, NASA controllers are intentionally going to send their $330 million robotic spacecraft, the Dart, hurtling toward the asteroids. The half-ton probe will travel more than four miles per second as it hits its target, Dimorphos, and will be destroyed.
The goal of this kamikaze science mission is simple: Space engineers want to learn how to divert asteroids, just in case any are discovered on their way to colliding with Earth. Observing Darts impacts in the orbit of Dimorphoss would yield critical data on how well spacecraft could shield the planet from an asteroid smackdown, they said.
We know asteroids have struck us in the past, says Queens University Belfast astronomer Prof Alan Fitzsimmons. “These impacts are a natural process and will occur again in the future. We want to prevent the worst of these.
“The problem is we never tested the technologies we will need to do it. That is what the Dart is all about,” said Fitzsimmons, who is part of the scientific team on the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (Dart) mission.
Launched in November last year, the probe was expected to hit its target early on Sept. 27. By closely studying the asteroid’s path following the collision, scientists think they will gain a better understanding of how similar impacts can be used to fend off Earth-bound asteroids and comets. Jay Tate, director of the UK’s National Near-Earth Objects Information Centre, Knighton, Powys, said: The targets for the dart were chosen with care. “Dimorphos is actually orbiting another, larger asteroid called Didymos, and it would be easier to spot the magnitude of the deflection caused by a collision because astronomers had already closely observed its course around the larger asteroid.
Impacts from asteroids and comets have had major impacts on life on Earth in the past. The most famous impact occurred 66 million years ago when a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid hit Chicxulub in Mexicos Yucatan peninsula. The collision created a burst with the energy of several billion atom bombs and led to the extinction of 75% of all animal and plant species, including all land-based dinosaurs.
Since then, films like Do not Look Up, Doomsday, and Deep Impact depicted similar destruction caused by an asteroid or comet impact in the modern day. However, astronomers think that we are unlikely to see similar cataclysmic impacts in real life anytime soon.
“We know where the biggest asteroids are, as we can see them with our current-generation telescopes, and we know that no asteroid that is been detected is going to get anywhere close to our planet for the next couple hundred years or so. So we can sleep soundly in our beds about those ones,” Fitzsimmons added.
“A lot of the smaller ones, though, are not detected yet and are still large enough to obliterate whole cities and devastate vast areas. We are mapping those smaller objects with increasing precision, but if we do detect one on its way to Earth, we need to be ready to take action.
Dart is a first step in making sure that we have the proper technologies in place to address this threat”. This is a view supported by NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, Lindley Johnson, who stressed the importance of developing technology for asteroidal deflection as early as possible. “We do not want to get into a situation where the asteroid is heading for the Earth, and then we need to be testing that type of capability.
An example of the dangers small asteroids and comets can cause is provided by the rock-like object which burst through the atmosphere of the planet close to the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on 15 February 2013. Believed to have been 20 meters across, it burst into the atmosphere, setting off a burst of 400 kilotons, which injured over 1,500 people. Tate said: Had the object entered the atmosphere just 20km farther north than it did, it would have caused far greater damage to the city.
“We were extremely fortunate to have no significant losses to those things in living memory. We need to realize they are going to happen someday and be prepared to do something about it.
The Darts target, Dimorphos, is 160 meters across and circles around its host asteroid once every 12 hours. Ten days before it strikes, the probe, billed as the LiciaCub, a handbag-sized Italian-built probe, is released, fitted with two cameras, and given Star Wars-inspired names of Luke and Leia. Images of the impact of the Dart asteroid will be recorded by Luke and Leia and transmitted to controllers on Earth. Earth-based telescopes will then examine the asteroid and determine exactly how its orbit has been altered.
“So, we will have a sense of how much easier it is going to be to divert incoming asteroids or comets,” says Tate. In addition, the European Space Agency is planning to send a robotic spacecraft, Hera, to Dimorphos in 2024 in order to examine Dart’s left-behind crater and analyze its impact with the asteroid. “It will not be an easy landing on Dimorphos,” Fitzgerald says. “It is just 160 meters across, and the spacecraft is going to travel four miles per second. A collision with the dead center of the asteroid — the point at which a collision would be the most impactful — would take the Dart’s automated navigation devices to the limits.
“NASA engineers and scientists have done an incredible job, and they are sure it absolutely needs to work. But you really never know until you do it,” Fitzsimmons said.
For more coverage on this story, check the following additional news sources:
- Nasa to crash $330m spacecraft into asteroid to see if impact can alter course The Guardian
- Terrifying 260-foot asteroid hurtling towards Earth tomorrow, NASA warns HT Tech
- NASA is firing a spacecraft at an asteroid and you can watch it live WOODTV.com
- First ever Earth-saving asteroid experiment from NASA happening this month MLive.com
- This frightening 150-foot wide asteroid just buzzed Earth; NASA says 4 other asteroids coming HT Tech