In the name of science, NASA will play a spaceship against an asteroid

There’s no way to put it mildly, so let’s just throw this discussion on the table: the US space agency NASA is going to blast a spaceship against an asteroid at high speed. Why science demands.

No, we’re not making an analogy: in the most literal sense possible, the mission titled “Double Test Asteroid Redirection” (DART) will launch a spacecraft from Earth, accelerate it as much as possible, and relentlessly , shock her against the Didymos, a binary asteroid (two rocks moving together) hoping to deflect it off course.

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Image from Vesta, to illustrate an article on how NASA intends to launch a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid
Giving a scientific meaning to the expression “a punch to the chin will do”, NASA wants to send a spacecraft to hit an asteroid in space with all its strength (Image: NASA/Publishing)

The test will assess the feasibility of a solution to a question that many – astronomers or not – have already asked at some point: if an asteroid comes our way, can we blow it up? If not, can we divert it?

If flashbacks of the movie are playing in your head Armageddon, with Bruce Willis, first of all, sorry for putting “that” Aerosmith song in your mind. Second, let’s take it easy: the film’s premise is to explode an asteroid that threatens life on Earth. The world’s space agencies are even considering this possibility, but they all agree that diverting it to a safer orbit is the best course of action.

Basically, Didymos is a much smaller class binary asteroid: the largest rock measures around 780 meters in length, while the smaller satellite rock reaches 160 meters. The DART mission will target this smaller rock, hoping that the direct impact against it will be enough for Earth observation satellites to analyze possible trajectory changes.

“This will show us the feasibility of a technique called ‘kinetic impacter’ to shift an asteroid’s orbit and determine whether this might be a usable option, at least on smaller asteroids, which are among the most likely to be at risk of impact [com a Terra],” Lindley Johnson, NASA Planetary Defense Officer, told Space.com earlier this year.

What Johnson says is true: when we think of “asteroid impact,” pop culture has conditioned us to think of the cataclysmic event of a space rock several kilometers across, from which a single shock would wipe humanity out of existence.

Not that this is impossible: the bolide that created the Chicxulub Crater and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs when it crashed into what is now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, no more than 10 kilometers away, and look what it did. But today, objects much smaller than this are already on our radar and anticipation strategies can be executed quickly.

Smaller asteroids, however, can be a problem: not all of our technology can spot them from afar, and seeing a problem only when it gets close…well, it doesn’t give us a favorable window of time to react. Of course, Didymos has no risk of crashing into Earth, but if it did, it wouldn’t destroy humanity either (but damage from falling space rocks goes beyond “death”: estimates say a 150-metre-long asteroid could destroy a US state in case of unmitigated direct impact), which makes it perfect for a viability test of its kind.

In other words: if we make a mistake, nothing changes with the asteroid, which won’t hit us. If we get it right, then it will be even further away from us, with the tradeoff that we will have a proven means of defense against future bodies if and when they arrive.

The DART mission will launch in late September 2022 – just over a year from today – from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will accelerate the propulsion of the spacecraft that gives the mission its name to orbit, where it will fire its own thrusters.

If all goes according to plan, the DART spacecraft should crash into the satellite rock at a speed of 24,000 km/h, completely destroying it on impact and hopefully slowing down the asteroid’s speed enough for our satellites to make it. evaluate any course changes.

DART will not travel alone: ​​a second spacecraft, operated by the Italian space agency (ISA), called “Light Italian CubeSAT for Imaging Asteroids”, or “LICIACube”, for intimates, will be in the vicinity of the shock, in order to record images taken in proximity to the episode.

For the purposes of knowledge, NASA maintains active real-time monitoring of all objects at a distance of 1.3 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is equivalent to about 150 million kilometers). To date, the US agency has identified about eight thousand asteroids up to 140 meters in size – fortunately, until at least the next century, none of these pose any risk to us.

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