NASA launches first planetary defense mission that seeks to deflect an asteroid with an impact

The DART ship is on a mission to crash into Dimorphos.

If a cosmic object a few hundred meters in diameter were to hit Earth, it could unleash great devastation.

Although that is unlikely to happen in the near future and scientists have clarified that there is no imminent riskat NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), has worked for years on a planetary defense system whose pilot finally took off from Earth this Wednesday.

The DART mission was launched successfully at 06:21 GMT on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Base, California, USA.

DART which in English means dart and whose acronym in English correspond to Asteroid Double Redirection Test, aims to test technology that might one day be necessary to deflect a dangerous asteroid from its course.

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DART will test a long-standing defensive proposal by hitting an object called Dimorphos to measure how much its speed and trajectory can be altered.

It is the first attempt to deflect an asteroid for the purpose of learning how to protect Earth, although this particular asteroid poses no threat.

The impact is estimated to occur sometime between July and September 2022.

The name Dimorphos means “two forms”. It is made up of a pair of asteroids that closely orbit each other, known as a binary.

The larger of the two objects, named Didymos, is around 780 meters wide, while its smaller companion, Dimorphos, is around 160 meters wide.

“DART will only change the period of Dimorphos’ orbit by a small amount. And really that’s all that is needed in case an asteroid is discovered far in advance,” says Kelly Fast of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. from NASA.

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Asteroids are the leftover building blocks of the Solar System. In the extremely rare case that the path of a space rock around the Sun crosses that of Earth so that the two objects intersect at the same time, a collision can occur.

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Objects the size of Dimorphos could hit Earth with many times the energy of a typical nuclear bomb, devastating populated areas and causing tens of thousands of casualties.

Asteroids with a diameter of 300 meters or greater could cause destruction on an entire continent, while those greater than 1 km would produce effects around the world.

NASA has explained, however, that “not known no asteroids that pose a risk of impact on Earth in the next 100 years. “

So far, the most dangerous asteroid is 2009FD, which has less than 0.2% chance of hitting Earth in the year 2185.

Experts, however, prefer to be cautious and be ready in case they ever had to face a real threat.

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The DART mission is a rehearsal for a planetary defense mission.

Kinetic impact

The DART mission will be the first attempt of deflecting a space object by what experts call a “kinetic impact.”

The operation will consist of launching the DART spacecraft to travel through space and, deliberately, crash contra Dimorphos.

The idea is that the impact makes you change your trajectory, like when two billiard balls collide.

“What we want to achieve is to change the speed of the object by maybe a centimeter per second,” explains astronomer Andy Rivkin, one of the mission leaders on the DART portal.

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This illustration shows the Dimorphos-Didymos binary system, close to the DART spacecraft and the cube satellite that plans to image the impact.

“That’s not much,” he says, but in the case of Earth, that would be enough to deviate its course and avoid the collision.

Among all the options that have been evaluated, NASA considers the kinetic impact to be the method “simpler and more technologically mature” to defend Earth from asteroids.

How is the DART ship

The dart that plans to hit Dimorphos is a low-cost ship that can travel at 6.6 km per second.

It is equipped with solar panels that when deployed measure 8.5 meters long each.

Inside it will have a camera that will help you navigate and identify your target, as well as choose the best one. point of impact.

The ship will also carry a cubic satellite which will come off a few days before the crash and will try to capture images of the moment of impact between DART and Dimorphos.

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The DART spacecraft will be equipped with solar panels and plans to travel at 6.6 km per second.

Planetary defense

Planetary defense programs aim to protect Earth from the threat of nearby cosmic objects, known as NEO, for its acronym in English.

An asteroid is considered close to Earth when its orbit brings it to about 50 million kilometers of our planet.

Although the vast majority of nearby objects that enter Earth’s atmosphere disintegrate Before reaching the surface, those objects that are greater than about 30 meters could cause damages if they pierce the atmosphere.

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When DART collides with Dimorphos, telescopes from Earth will be able to observe the variation of the orbit with respect to Didymos.

According to NASA, it is considered an object potentially dangerous if it orbits 7.5 million kilometers from Earth and is more than 140 km in diameter.

Every month, astronomers manage to detect several asteroids a few meters in diameter that pass between the Earth and the Moon.

Every day the Earth’s atmosphere is also hit by meteroids, which are small fragments of asteroids of about one meter, which cause the glowing trails that can be seen at night.

According to NASA, on an average of every 10,000 years, there is the possibility that asteroids larger than 100 meters could impact on the Earth and cause local disasters or generate waves that flood coastal areas.

So for now there is nothing to worry about, but it is better to be prepared.

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