In two weeks, NASA will usher in a new era for the solar system.
The milestone comes courtesy of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which was launched last fall. On September 26, DART will crash headfirst into a small asteroid, the rare case where destroying a spacecraft is the desired outcome. The mission is in the name of planetary defense, which seeks to protect Earth any potential asteroid impact; scientists hope it should be dangerous asteroid threaten the planet in the future, a mission like DART could avert catastrophe.
“These objects are hurtling through space and of course marked the moon and over time also on Earth had major impacts, affected our history,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the science, during a press conference held on Monday. (September 12).
Related: NASA’s DART asteroid impact mission explained in pictures
“A series of new missions that we have put in place are actually helping us understand and quantify these threats in an unprecedented way,” Zurbuchen added. “DART is a first mission to try to really ward off an object of threat in a direct experience.”
Scientists have identified and mapped the orbits of nearly 30,000 asteroids that vibrate around the solar system in the vicinity of Earth. All of these space rocks either never cross Earth or are so small that if they did they would burn harmlessly in earth’s atmosphere. Still, it’s possible that an asteroid impact in the future could harm Earth, and planetary defense experts want to be prepared.
The theory goes that if scientists were to ever detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, an impact probe could realign the space rock’s orbit, ensuring it crosses paths with Earth when our planet is at a safe distance. But scientists don’t want to work purely from theory if the situation arises.
This is where DART’s dramatic destruction comes in. The spacecraft will crash into a small asteroid called Dimorphos, which, like clockwork, orbits a larger near-Earth asteroid called Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. (No asteroid poses a threat to Earth, and DART won’t change that.) The DART impact should adjust Dimorphos’ orbit, cutting its circuit by perhaps 10 minutes.
Scientists on Earth will spend weeks after impact measuring the actual change in the moon’s orbit to compare with their predictions. The work will refine scientists’ understanding of how asteroids respond to impactors and help adjust all future missions to the necessary amount of orbital change.
“It’s not just a one-time event,” said Nancy Chabot, DART coordination manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, which is leading the mission, at the press conference. “We want to know what happened to Dimorphos, but more importantly, we want to understand what it means to potentially apply this technique in the future.”
While the stakes are low compared to any scenario that would motivate a real asteroid-deflecting mission, the difficulty is the same.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” Evan Smith, the assistant mission system engineer, said at the press conference, noting that the spacecraft won’t be able to see Dimorphos itself until about an hour and a half before the launch. ‘impact. “It’s a par-one course, so we’re going to hit hard this time.”
What if something doesn’t go as planned? Mission personnel are quite confident that as long as the spacecraft hits its target, there should be something to see.
“If DART collides with Dimorphos and you don’t see any change in orbital period, that would be exceptionally surprising,” Chabot said. “Just the amount of momentum DART brings on its own from the weight of the spacecraft slamming into Dimorphos is enough to move its orbit measurably.” »
Missing the moon is always a possibility, but that’s kind of the point of DART: figuring out what would-be planetary defenders need to know if they ever want to launch a real asteroid-deflecting mission.
“It will give all of us confidence that deflection technology could work in the future,” Andrea Riley, a program manager at NASA working with the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said at the conference. Press. “If he misses, he still provides a lot of data. This is a test mission. That’s why we test; we want to do it now rather than when there is a real need.
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