Why Is A NASA Spacecraft Crashing Into An Asteroid?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Within the first-of-its sort, save-the-world experiment, NASA is about to clobber a small, innocent asteroid hundreds of thousands of miles away.

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph). The impression ought to be simply sufficient to nudge the asteroid right into a barely tighter orbit round its companion house rock — demonstrating that if a killer asteroid ever heads our manner, we’d stand a combating likelihood of diverting it.

“That is stuff of science-fiction books and actually corny episodes of “StarTrek” from once I was a child, and now it’s actual,” NASA program scientist Tom Statler mentioned Thursday.

Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, however it’ll take days and even weeks to seek out out if it truly modified the orbit.

The $325 million planetary protection take a look at started with Dart’s launch last fall.


The asteroid with the bull’s-eye on it’s Dimorphos, about 7 million miles (9.6 million kilometers) from Earth. It’s truly the puny sidekick of a 2,500-foot (780-meter) asteroid named Didymos, Greek for twin. Found in 1996, Didymos is spinning so quick that scientists imagine it flung off materials that finally shaped a moonlet. Dimorphos — roughly 525 ft (160 meters) throughout — orbits its guardian physique at a distance of lower than a mile (1.2 kilometers).

“This actually is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” mentioned Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission staff chief at Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory, which is managing the trouble. “This isn’t going to explode the asteroid. It isn’t going to place it into a lot of items.” Somewhat, the impression will dig out a crater tens of yards (meters) in dimension and hurl some 2 million kilos (1 million kilograms) of rocks and grime into house.

NASA insists there’s a zero likelihood both asteroid will threaten Earth — now or sooner or later. That’s why the pair was picked.

Asteroid Strike-Explainer


The Johns Hopkins lab took a minimalist strategy in creating Dart — brief for Double Asteroid Redirection Take a look at — on condition that it’s primarily a battering ram and faces certain destruction. It has a single instrument: a digicam used for navigating, concentrating on and chronicling the ultimate motion. Believed to be primarily a rubble pile, Dimorphos will emerge as some extent of sunshine an hour earlier than impression, looming bigger and bigger within the digicam pictures beamed again to Earth. Managers are assured Dart gained’t smash into the bigger Didymos by mistake. The spacecraft’s navigation is designed to tell apart between the 2 asteroids and, within the last 50 minutes, goal the smaller one.

The dimensions of a small merchandising machine at 1,260 kilos (570 kilograms), the spacecraft will slam into roughly 11 billion kilos (5 billion kilograms) of asteroid. “Typically we describe it as working a golf cart right into a Nice Pyramid,” mentioned Chabot.

Except Dart misses — NASA places the percentages of that occuring at lower than 10% — it will likely be the tip of the highway for Dart. If it goes screaming previous each house rocks, it’ll encounter them once more in a pair years for Take 2.


Little Dimorphos completes a lap round huge Didymos each 11 hours and 55 minutes. The impression by Dart ought to shave about 10 minutes off that. Though the strike itself ought to be instantly obvious, it may take a couple of weeks or extra to confirm the moonlet’s tweaked orbit. Cameras on Dart and a mini tagalong satellite tv for pc will seize the collision up shut. Telescopes on all seven continents, together with the Hubble and Webb house telescopes and NASA’s asteroid-hunting Lucy spacecraft, might even see a vibrant flash as Dart smacks Dimorphos and sends streams of rock and grime cascading into house. The observatories will monitor the pair of asteroids as they circle the solar, to see if Dart altered Dimorphos’ orbit. In 2024, a European spacecraft named Hera will retrace Dart’s journey to measure the impression outcomes.

Though the meant nudge ought to change the moonlet’s place solely barely, that can add as much as a significant shift over time, in response to Chabot. “So in the event you have been going to do that for planetary protection, you’ll do it 5, 10, 15, 20 years prematurely to ensure that this system to work,” she mentioned. Even when Dart misses, the experiment nonetheless will present beneficial perception, mentioned NASA program government Andrea Riley. “For this reason we take a look at. We need to do it now slightly than when there’s an precise want,” she mentioned.


Planet Earth is on an asteroid-chasing roll. NASA has near a pound (450 grams) of rubble collected from asteroid Bennu headed to Earth. The stash ought to arrive subsequent September. Japan was the primary to retrieve asteroid samples, conducting the feat twice. China hopes to comply with go well with with a mission launching in 2025. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, in the meantime, is headed to asteroids close to Jupiter, after launching final yr. One other spacecraft, Close to-Earth Asteroid Scout, is loaded into NASA’s new moon rocket awaiting liftoff; it’ll use a photo voltaic sail to fly previous an area rock that’s lower than 60 ft (18 meters) subsequent yr. Within the subsequent few years, NASA additionally plans to launch a census-taking telescope to establish hard-to-find asteroids that would pose dangers. One asteroid mission is grounded whereas an impartial evaluation board weighs its future. NASA’s Psyche spacecraft ought to have launched this yr to a metal-rich asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, however the staff couldn’t take a look at the flight software program in time.


Hollywood has churned out dozens of killer-space-rock motion pictures over the a long time, together with 1998′s “Armageddon” which introduced Bruce Willis to Cape Canaveral for filming, and final yr’s “Don’t Look Up” with Leonardo DiCaprio main an all-star solid. NASA’s planetary protection officer, Lindley Johnson, figures he’s seen all of them since 1979′s “Meteor,” his private favourite “since Sean Connery performed me.” Whereas among the sci-fi movies are extra correct than others, he famous, leisure at all times wins out. The excellent news is that the coast appears clear for the subsequent century, with no recognized threats. In any other case, “it will be like the films, proper?” mentioned NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen. What’s worrisome, although, are the unknown threats. Fewer than half of the 460-foot (140-meter) objects have been confirmed, with hundreds of thousands of smaller however still-dangerous objects zooming round. “These threats are actual, and what makes this time particular, is we are able to do one thing about it,” Zurbuchen mentioned. Not by blowing up an asteroid as Willis’ character did — that might be a final, last-minute resort — or by begging authorities leaders to take motion as DiCaprio’s character did in useless. If time permits, the most effective tactic may very well be to nudge the menacing asteroid out of our manner, like Dart.

The Related Press Well being and Science Division receives assist from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Training. The AP is solely liable for all content material.


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