One day in late September, a box-shaped spacecraft weighing approximately half a ton will ascend an asteroid seven million miles away from Earth at a speed of 15,000mph, in a bid to knock it down to a new orbit.
This suicide mission by a craft the size of a golf cart was not just a self -indulgent experiment that NASA scientists dreamed up with money to burn.
The very future of humanity may depend on its success because the $ 330 million (£ 269 million) Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART, in other words) could provide an answer to a problem that has bothered astronomers for many century: what to do when an asteroid is in a collision with our planet.
‘It’s a mission for planet Earth – all the people on Earth – because we’re all in danger,’ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who added that Dart had ‘made science fiction into science fact’.
The DART mission will reach its final stage later this year when the object hits the asteroid Dimorphos
Ever since the 1980s, when scientists first realized that the six-mile-wide Chicxulub crater outside Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was left by an asteroid whose impact triggered the massive destruction of all non-avian dinosaurs, Hollywood is glued to the blockbuster potential of such a storyline.
Films like Armageddon, Deep Impact and, most recently, Don’t Look Up, have all earned millions at the Box Office by playing on our fear of a planet-triggered extinction-level event. -killing asteroids.
And, according to NASA, such fears are not misleading. It classifies approximately 28,000 asteroids as ‘near-Earth’ objects and its scientists believe there may be thousands large enough to cause major damage if they hit Earth.
The nearly 200 impact craters that have so far been found around the world are testimony to the fact that the Earth has been somewhat knocked down by asteroids over the millennia.
Pictured is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that brought DART off the planet when it launched in November 2021
DART’s mission task is to test the effectiveness of an asteroid-deflection method involving a ‘kinetic impactor’, in this case a spacecraft traveling at more than four miles per second.
NASA expects to establish that if you hit an asteroid or comet hard while it is far enough away from Earth, you can bump it in the path so that it does not hit us.
Launched in June last year aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from an air force base in California, Dart will target a small ‘moonlet’, or small moon, only 530ft in diameter. called Dimorphos, orbiting the larger asteroid Didymos, a 2,560ft diameter rock.
None of it was a collision with Earth and they were the ones chosen because even if Dimorphos were successfully diverted, there was no danger that it would come anywhere near us.
Once in the Didymos system, it will hit the moonlet directly, powered by its electric propulsion system powered by a 28ft-long solar panel.
The more material from the asteroid that breaks into Dimorphos by impact, the more it will be removed from its path.
Scientists expect the impact will send the small asteroid into a tighter orbit around the larger one. The spaceship, meanwhile, will be destroyed.
All this will be recorded by a small Italian-built satellite carried by DART, which will be released a few days before the spacecraft hits the asteroid, so that it can record the result of the collision.
Meanwhile, an on-board camera will send photos of the moment of impact.
Scientists will also be able to monitor what happens through a telescope from Earth and, four years later another satellite, Hera, to be launched in 2024 by the European Space Agency.
The spacecraft is powered by two Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA), which provide it with solar power
It makes sense to make way of dealing with an upcoming asteroid because, unlike other natural threats such as earthquakes and volcanoes, we will see one coming when it is a few years ago.
And experts generally believe it’s a question of when, not if, Earth will next deal with one.
As we’ve seen, Hollywood has long addressed the fact that asteroids deserve to be treated in catastrophic film.
Inevitably, the methods they dream of to prevent the imminent destruction of the world are rather more dramatic than DART.
In the 1998 film Armageddon, a team of hard and deep -sea oil drillers led by Bruce Willis, is sent into space to confront an asteroid the size of Texas that must hit Earth – killing all life – within 18 days.
An advanced version of the Space Shuttle landed them on rock where they detonated a nuclear bomb, splitting the asteroid into two halves that were both safely flying beyond the planet.
The plot isn’t entirely ridiculous-NASA is in fact training astronauts on how they can actually land and walk on an asteroid, recreating the almost zero-gravity conditions on the seabed off the coast of Florida.
Possible scenarios in question for an asteroid-landing could include a mission to collect rock samples-asteroids are known to sometimes contain rare elements-or to install rockets. engine on its surface that can be operated to change its trajectory.
But as for the explosion of an asteroid, scientists believe that even if it were possible (and after eons of being battered in space, they were extremely durable), the gravitational pull of its core would actually force the rock to coalesce.
When it arrived at Dimoprhos, it first crashed into the asteroid in an attempt to divert its path.
An alternative that scientists think could detonate a nuclear bomb or missile near an asteroid, but the use of nuclear weapons in space is prohibited under international law, so testing that risky thesis is unlikely. currently.
Another theory is that the gravity caused by a spacecraft flying close by – what is known as a ‘gravity tractor’ – may be enough to push the asteroid on a new course.
However, aside from the wisdom to risk everything on Bruce Willis, perhaps the main reason Armageddon is unrealistic is its timescale.
According to Nancy Chabot, a project scientist for DART, a spacecraft could not be launched at the last minute to save Earth.
‘It’s something you would do five, ten, 15, 20 years earlier-slowly nudge the asteroid so that it would sail freely and not affect the Earth,’ he said.
Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos and was chosen because even if something goes wrong it has no risk of colliding with Earth.
It’s okay if you have enough warnings.
Although almost all of the largest ‘near Earth’ asteroids have already been found and none of them are in danger of hitting us within at least the next century, of the 28,000 estimated to be at least 460 feet wide, only 10,000 were seen.
And even the smallest of those is enough to destroy a small US state.
Scientists are constantly taking pictures in space looking for new asteroids, using computers to detect any signs of motion, for example when someone passes in front of a distant star.
However, smaller asteroids glow more faintly and have to approach Earth before they can be noticed.
A mountain-size asteroid known as 1998 OR2 shot down at Earth in what NASA calls a ‘close approach’-in fact, 3.9 million miles away-two years ago.
Future plans could see astronauts land on the asteroids themselves to collect rock samples or try to divert their path by installing rocket engines on objects.
In 1999, the world of space observation was horrified when a previously unidentified ‘city killer’ asteroid up to 427ft in diameter arrived within 45,000 miles of Earth – less than 5/5 of the distance to the Moon.
Michael Brown, an Australian astronomer, said it would ‘be like a massive nuclear weapon’ if it hit the planet.
Smaller rocks in space – known as meteors – are generally burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, seen as so -called shooting stars.
In 2013, a previously unidentified meteor with a diameter of 66 feet crashed in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, releasing 30 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Some scientists say it is easily burned so intensely that it is brighter than the Sun.
Earth has not been hit by a major meteor since the Tunguska Event in 1908 when one estimated to have reached 250 feet mercifully landed in an uninhabited region of Siberia.
It destroyed 80 million trees and left burnt reindeer carcasses in an area twice the size of Los Angeles.
If it arrived four hours later, it destroyed St Petersburg.
Every year, the June 30 anniversary of the Siberian incident is marked by Asteroid Day.
Its co -founders – which include the late Stephen Hawking, and Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May – aim to raise awareness of the asteroid threat and what can be done to protect the Earth.
A small spacecraft called a DART can provide a nudge in the right direction.
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