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Home SCIENCE NASA's DART mission successfully crashes a spacecraft into an asteroid

NASA’s DART mission successfully crashes a spacecraft into an asteroid

LAUREL, Md. — NASA succeeded Monday in crashing a small spacecraft directly into an asteroid, a 14,000-mile-per-hour collision designed to test whether such technology could one day be deployed to protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic impact.

The violent end of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft thrilled scientists and engineers at Johns Hopkins University. Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which operated the mission under a NASA contract.

The asteroid, Dimorphos, is the size of a stadium, or the Great Pyramid of Giza, as one scientist said on Monday, and is about 7 million miles from Earth at the moment. It orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. None pose a threat to our planet now or at any time in the foreseeable future.

This was just a test, NASA’s first demonstration of a possible planetary defense technique, called a kinetic impactor. The idea is to give a hypothetically dangerous asteroid just enough of a hit to alter its orbital path.

Launched last November from California, the spacecraft was small, about the size of a vending machine or golf cart. Dimorphos is quite large, about 500 feet in diameter, although its precise shape and composition were unknown prior to final approach. Scientists anticipated a column of debris from the asteroid upon impact. but without significant structural changes. This is more like a bug splattering on a windshield.

“This is not just bowling ball physics,” Applied Physics Laboratory planetary scientist Nancy Chabot told reporters. “The spaceship is going to lose.”

How it works: NASA hopes to hit an asteroid now in case we really need to shoot one down later

But even small effects on an asteroid’s motion could save the planet. An early collision with an asteroid, if done early enough, say 5-10 years before its projected encounter with Earth, could be enough to slow it down and cause it to miss.

There are thousands of potentially dangerous asteroids approaching or crossing the Earth’s orbital path around the sun. None are currently known to be on a trajectory to hit the planet.

When engineers conceived of an asteroid deflection mission, they seized on an ingenious idea that would greatly reduce costs: hitting an asteroid “moon” orbiting a larger asteroid.

Detecting the effect of a collision with a single asteroid orbiting the sun would have required two spacecraft, engineer Andrew Cheng told reporters, because such an asteroid moves at tremendous speed, and the impact of a small spacecraft would result in a minimal and hard impact. – detect change. A second spacecraft would have to be present to examine the effect.

But a small moon, like Dimorphos, orbits its larger twin at a majestic rate. The effect of the impact should be more easily detected, even with telescopes on Earth and in space. A second spacecraft is not necessary.

It will take at least a couple of days to know if and how much the DART mission managed to slow down the target asteroid. Telescopes on Earth and in space watched the collision, as did a small instrument, called a cubesat, which was deployed 15 days before the impact.

This is an unusual mission in that it does not involve a spacecraft trying to survive a dangerous landing on an alien world or demonstrating its operational capability in the harsh environment of outer space, said Robert Braun, head of the exploration sector. space in the Laboratory of Applied Physics. .

NASA spacecraft will crash into an asteroid on Monday, if all goes well

“Here, what we’re looking for is signal loss,” he told reporters before the crash. “What we are rooting for is the loss of the spacecraft.”

By Monday afternoon, Laurel’s engineers had sent their final course corrections to the DART spacecraft, and from then on it was on its own, autonomously making final navigation adjustments. The rover was aimed directly at the larger, brighter asteroid, but was programmed to fire thrusters that would turn it toward the smaller asteroid when it came into view.

Some strange scenarios cannot be ruled out. because the shape of the asteroid would not be determined until the last hour before impact. In fact, only the largest asteroid, not Dimorphos, could be seen on the live feed from the spacecraft’s camera 90 minutes before impact.

“If we had the right heading and it was shaped like a doughnut, we would fly right through it,” Braun said.

It wasn’t until the final minutes of DART’s journey that the spacecraft or its human operators on Earth got a good look at Dimorphos. She was not visible at all until about an hour before impact. Even then, it was just a tiny, barely noticeable dot next to its brighter twin.

There was joy in the Mission Operations Center as the asteroid grew larger on the screen. About 50 minutes before impact, project manager Edward Reynolds began uttering the same phrase: “This is nominal, this is nominal,” aerospace engineering jargon for “everything is going exactly as planned,” he said later. .

“We have looked at Dimorphos,” reported engineer Elena Adams 27 minutes before impact.

The onboard camera kept shooting. The dot grew into a distinctly spherical rock with a rough surface covered in boulders, looking like something you’d keep in your garage like a scrubbing tool. In the Mission Operations Center, the engineers stood up and cheered during the final moments, too excited to sit at their consoles.

In the last image, Dimorphos completely filled the frame. DART was hitting the mark.

Then came a blank screen. DART was successful and ceased to exist.

“Impact confirmed for the world’s first planetary defense test mission,” NASA’s live stream announced.

In NASA’s broadcast, agency administrator Bill Nelson stated that the mission had demonstrated technology “to save our planet.” Ralph Semmel, director of the Applied Physics Laboratory, said he felt an adrenaline rush when the DART made a direct hit on the target: “I’ve never been so excited to see a signal disappear.”

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