NASA’s Dual Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft is set to crash into an asteroid on Monday (September 26), in the first-ever test of humanity’s ability to deflect life-threatening asteroids before they hit Earth.
The 1,210-pound (550-kilogram) DART craft, a squat cube-shaped probe consisting of sensors, an antenna, an ion thruster and two 28-foot-long (8.5-meter) solar arrays, is about to crash into asteroid Dimorphos while traveling at approximately 13,420 mph (21,160 km/h).
The purpose of the probe’s tests is to slow the 525-foot-wide (160 m) orbit of Dimorphos around its larger partner, the 1,280-foot-wide (390 m) asteroid Didymos. None of the asteroids pose a threat Earth, as they will be more than 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) from our planet at the time of the DART collision, but NASA scientists want to use this test to study how a more dangerous asteroid could one day be deflected from a deadly collision. DART will face Dimorphos at 7:14 PM ET on Monday, with live broadcast beginning at 6:00 PM ET NASA TV.
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“Our DART spacecraft will collide with an asteroid in humanity’s first attempt to alter the motion of a natural celestial body,” Tom Statler, a scientist with NASA’s Planetary Defense Group, said at a Sept. 12 briefing about the mission. “This will be a truly historic moment for the entire world.”
DART began its journey to Didymos and Dimorphos 10 months ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, but its roots can be traced back even further. In the early 2000s, scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) proposed another test for an asteroid named after Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the 16th-century literary knight known for aimlessly throwing himself at windmills. The Quixotic mission was never completed. Then, in 2011, ESA agreed to work with NASA on a joint deflection mission: the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). AIM was later split into NASA’s DART and ESA’s Hera missions; the first collided with Dimorphos on Monday, while the second was launched in 2026 to study the aftermath of the crash.
Scientists expect this test to slow Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1% and bring it closer to Didymos. The mission will be considered a success if it slows Dimorphos’ 12-hour orbit by 73 seconds, but the actual change could be as much as 10 minutes.
Because the DART craft will be destroyed on impact, its onboard Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) will only be able to take split-second snapshots of the orbiter’s final moments before it slams into Dimorphos. To get a better immediate picture of the results, scientists will turn to the Italian space agency’s LICIACube, the smaller “cubesat” spacecraft that separated from DART on September 11. In orbit after the impact at a distance of 34 miles (55 km), LICIACube will send back to Earth pictures of the impact that changed the trajectory and the plume of material ejected by the crash.
“There will be an impact that will change the trajectory; a crater will be formed; after that there will be emissions that will spread in space, and LICIACube will photograph this,” – Stavro Ivanovski, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Space Astrophysics. and planetology and LICIACube team member, said during a Sept. 19 briefing.
Some observatories on the ground will also witness the impact; NASA James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope; and the agency’s Lucy spacecraft. Their observations will be vital to scientists who want to understand how much force is needed to successfully deflect an asteroid.
NASA isn’t the only space agency looking to develop its asteroid redirection capabilities; China’s National Space Administration is also in the early stages of planning an asteroid redirection mission. China says that in 2026 it will clap 23 of its 992-ton (900-metric-ton) Long March 5 rockets pounce on asteroid Bennu.
Bennu is not as benign as Didymos and Dimorphos (although the threat of a potential impact exists more than 150 years in the future). Between 2175 and 2199, the 85.5 million ton (77.5 million metric tons) space rock is on track to fly within 4.6 million miles (7.5 million km) of Earth’s orbit. Although Bennu’s odds of hitting Earth are slim – just 1 in 2,700 – the space rock is as wide as the Empire State Building, meaning any collision with Earth would be cataclysmic, causing gigantic tsunami if it hits the ocean. , and killing millions when it landed in a populated area.
The estimated kinetic energy of Bennu’s impact with Earth is 1,200 megatons, which is about 80,000 times the energy dumped on Hiroshima. By comparison, the space rock that destroyed the dinosaurs delivered about 100 million megatons of energy, This was previously reported by Live Science.
“[A] An object half a kilometer in size would create a crater at least five kilometers in diameter, and could be as much as 10 kilometers in diameter,” Lindley Johnson, director of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. said the New York Times. “But the area of destruction will be much, much wider than that, 100 times the size of the crater. Object [of] The size of Bennu affecting the East Coast states will pretty much devastate the entire coast.”
Originally published on Live Science.
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