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November 23, 2021

by Issam Ahmed

NASA is preparing to launch a mission to intentionally crash a spaceship into an asteroid – a test run if mankind ever has to stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth.

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It may sound like science fiction, but the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is a true proof-of-concept experiment that will be carried out on Tuesday at 10:21 p.m. Pacific Time (0621 GMT Wednesday) on board a Vandenberg’s SpaceX rocket launches Space Force base in California.

Its target: Dimorphos, a “moonlet” about 525 feet wide (or two Statues of Liberty) that encases a much larger asteroid called Didymos (2,500 feet or 780 meters in diameter), which together orbits the sun.

The impact should take place in the fall of 2022, when the pair of rocks will be 11 million kilometers from Earth, the closest point they will ever reach.

“We’re trying to learn how to ward off a threat,” said NASA’s top scientist Thomas Zuburchen in a press conference about the $ 330 million project, the first of its kind.

But they belong a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets that approach our planet within 50 million kilometers.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is most interested in those that are larger than 140 meters and have the potential to level entire cities or regions with many times the energy of the average atomic bomb.

There are 10,000 known low-earth asteroids 460 feet or more in size, but none stand a significant chance to meet in the next 100 years. One important caveat: To date, only about 40 percent of these asteroids have been found.

Planetary scientists can create miniature impacts in laboratories and use the results to create sophisticated models of how to redirect an asteroid – but models are based on imperfect assumptions as to why they make one want to do a real test.

The DART probe, a box the size of a large refrigerator with sedan-sized solar panels on either side, will hit Dimorphos at a little over 15,000 miles per hour and a small one Cause change in the movement of the asteroid.

Scientists say the couple is an “ideal natural laboratory” for the test, as earth-based telescopes can easily measure the brightness fluctuations of the Didymos-Dimorphos system and assess the time it takes Dimorphos to orbit its big brother.

Their orbit never cuts our planet and provides a safe way to measure the impact of the impact, which is scheduled to take place between September 26th and October 1st, 2022.

Andy Rivkin, DART Investigation Team Leader, said the current orbital time is 11 hours and 55 minutes, and the team expects the kick to reduce Dimorphos’ orbit by about 10 minutes.

There is some uncertainty about how much energy will transfer from the impact because the internal composition and porosity of the moon is unknown.

“Every time we surface on an asteroid, we find things that we did not expect,” said Rivkin.

The The DART spacecraft also contains sophisticated navigation and imaging tools, including the Italian Space Agency’s Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) to monitor the crash and its aftermath.

Didymos’ trajectory could also be slightly affected scientists say. The so-called “kinetic impactor” method is not the only way to deflect an asteroid, but it is the technique that uses the current technology works best.

Others that have been adopted involve flying a spacecraft nearby to impart a small force of gravity.

Another is the detonation of a nuclear explosion nearby – but not on the object itself, as in the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact – that would likely create many more dangerous objects.

Asteroids that are Ten kilometers – like the one that hit 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of most living things on earth, including dinosaurs – occur roughly every 100 to 200 million years.

© 2021 AFP

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