The world’s first planetary defense system, intended to avoid a cataclysmic collision with Earth, was tested on Monday as NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART spacecraft approached a planned hit with its target ten months after launch.
The “impactor” vehicle, which had a cube shape and was about the size of a vending machine and had two rectangular solar arrays, was planned to fly into the asteroid Dimorphos, which was about the size of a football stadium, and then explode 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT).
In the mission’s culmination, a spaceship will be put to the test to see if it can change an asteroid’s trajectory using only kinetic force by slamming into it at high speed to shove it just far enough away from Earth.
It represents the first-ever attempt to alter the trajectory of an asteroid or any other celestial entity.
The majority of DART’s journey has been traveled under the direction of NASA’s flight directors. In the closing hours of the mission, however, control will be transferred to an autonomous onboard navigation system. DART was launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021.
The intended impact is scheduled to be tracked in real-time from the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, on Monday evening.
As part of a binary pair with the same name—the Greek word for twin—celestial DART’s target is an asteroid “moonlet” with a diameter of roughly 560 feet (170 meters) that orbits a parent asteroid five times larger and is known as Didymos.
According to NASA scientists, neither object actually poses a threat to Earth, and their DART test cannot accidentally produce a new existential hazard.
When compared to the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out around three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal life, including the dinosaurs, Dimorphos and Didymos are both insignificant.
According to NASA scientists and planetary security specialists, the Didymos duo are excellent test subjects because of their size because smaller asteroids are much more frequent and theoretically present a higher immediate threat.
They are also perfect for DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the first proof-of-concept mission due to their relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration.
ROBOTIC SUICIDE MISSION
In rare circumstances, the project required a NASA spacecraft to crash in order to be successful.
It is intended for DART to strike Dimorphos directly at a speed of 15,000 mph (24,000 kph), hard enough to cause it to change its orbit such that it is closer to its larger partner asteroid.
Cameras on the impactor and a tiny mini-spacecraft the size of a briefcase that was launched from DART days beforehand are intended to record the collision and send pictures back to Earth.
According to APL, DART’s own camera will take images at a rate of one per second throughout its final approach, with those images commencing to stream live on NASA TV an hour before impact.
In order to prove the exercise as a workable method to divert an asteroid on a collision trajectory with Earth – should one be discovered – the DART team stated that it expected to abbreviate the orbital route of Dimorphos by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds to be a success.
An asteroid millions of kilometers away might be safely redirected away from the planet with just a tiny shove.
Before a new set of ground-based telescope observations of the two asteroids in October, the results of the test won’t be known.
During a six-day observation session in July, the beginning location and orbital period of Dimorphos were verified according to earlier calculations.
The most current NASA project to investigate and communicate with asteroids—primordial rocky leftovers from the solar system’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago—is called DART.
NASA sent a mission to the Trojan asteroid groups circling close to Jupiter last year, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is currently returning to Earth with a sample it obtained from the asteroid Bennu in October 2020.
There are 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes that NASA is currently tracking, with the Dimorphos moonlet being one of the smallest to do so.
NASA believes that many more asteroids in the area of the Earth’s atmosphere are still undiscovered, even though none are currently known to present a threat to humanity.
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