A NASA Spacecraft Will Collide With an Asteroid


Dimorphos is well one of many least fascinating objects within the photo voltaic system. It’s a rock—a moonlet, actually—measuring simply 160 m (525 ft.) throughout, orbiting the asteroid Didymos, which itself measures solely 780 m (2,560 ft). Situated 11 million km (6.Eight million mi.) from Earth, the Didymos-Dimorphos system is only one tiny a part of the river of rubble that circles the solar within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

However on Monday, Sept. 26 at exactly 7:14 p.m. ET, the eye of a lot of the astronomical group shall be directed at Dimorphos. That’s the second at which NASA’s DART spacecraft (quick for Double Asteroid Redirection Check) will punch the moonlet in the nostril—intentionally colliding with it at a velocity of about 28,200 okay/h (17,500 mph). The outcomes of that cosmic crack-up may go a protracted solution to figuring out how NASA and the world’s different house businesses can maintain the planet protected from incoming asteroids: destroying or deflecting them earlier than they will do the sort of cataclysmic harm that occurred when a 10 to 15 km (6.2 to 9.three mi.) house rock crashed off the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years in the past, inflicting the worldwide extinction occasion that spelled the top of the dinosaurs.

The danger to modern-day Earth is actual. NASA’s Middle for Close to Earth Object Research (CNEOS) retains a operating rely of what it dubs near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), outlined as house rubble that isn’t locked up within the asteroid belt, however circles the solar in an orbit that brings it inside 45 million km (28 million mi.) of Earth. That would appear like a reasonably protected miss distance, however there’s at all times an opportunity that another piece of free-flying house particles may collide with an NEA, altering its course and sending it our method. In line with CNEOS’s census, there are 855 recognized NEAs measuring at the least 1 km (.62 mi.), and greater than 10,000 which can be at the least 140 m (460 ft.) throughout. Total, there are 29,801 recognized NEAs of all sizes within the CNEOS database.

Interception and deflection is our greatest protection in opposition to NEAs, and as a primary check of the nonetheless unproven method, NASA constructed DART and launched it in direction of the Didymos-Dimorphos pair on November 23, 2021. The spacecraft is definitely two spacecraft. The primary DART physique measures 2.6 m (8.5 ft) throughout, and weighs 600 kg (1,320 lbs). Carried together with it’s a small, toaster-sized spacecraft constructed by the Italian House Company (ISA), dubbed the Gentle Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids (LICIACube). It’s DART itself that can collide with Dimorphos; the job of LICIACube, which separated from DART on Sept. 11, is to fly close by and take pictures of the moonlet earlier than and after impression.

“We’re working with ASI to get LICIACube to inside 25 to 50 miles [40 to 80 km] of Dimorphos simply two to 3 minutes after DART’s impression—shut sufficient to get good pictures of the impression and ejecta plume, however not so shut LICIACube could possibly be hit by ejecta,” mentioned NASA’s LICIACube navigation director Dan Lubey in an area company assertion.

LICIACube’s work shall be essential with regards to gathering proof concerning the sort of bodily harm an impactor spacecraft can do to an asteroid. However the true indicator of the mission’s success will are available in measurements of how dramatically DART adjustments the orbit of Dimorphos round Didymos. That shall be decided by an array of Earth-based telescopes, together with NASA’s Deep House Community of radio telescopes in Barstow, Calif.; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia.

For now, NASA’s finest guess is that DART will speed up the moonlet’s 11.9-hour orbit round Didymos by a number of minutes. That seemingly small distinction is definitely very massive, since even a slight change within the velocity or trajectory of an asteroid when it’s thousands and thousands of miles from Earth may trigger it to fly nicely large of us when it lastly reaches our planetary neighborhood.

House has at all times been a harmful place. The DART mission may assist make it safer. Simply how a lot safer shall be referred to as quickly as subsequent week.

This story initially appeared in TIME House, our weekly e-newsletter masking all issues house. You possibly can join right here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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