NASA gears up to deflect asteroid, in key test of planetary defense

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A man sits at his workstation within the Mission Operations Center for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spaceship, which is fast approaching its target.

In an important test of our ability to prevent cosmic objects from destroying life on Earth, NASA will try a thing no one has ever done before: purposefully slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid to divert its orbit gently.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft was launched from California in November and is currently traveling at a speed of around 14,000 miles per hour towards its intended target (23,000 kph).

Neither the small asteroid moon Dimorphos nor its larger companion Didymos, which circle the Sun and pass close to Earth at a distance of around seven million miles, pose any threat to the planet.

However, NASA has decided that the experiment should be performed even if there isn't yet a necessity.

A NASA planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, told reporters at a briefing on Thursday that "this is an exciting time, not just for the agency but, quite frankly, in the history of humans and space."

If all goes according to schedule, the car-sized spacecraft should collide with the 530-foot (160 meters, or two Statues of Liberty) asteroid on September 26 at 7:14 p.m. Eastern Time (2314 p.m. GMT), and the event will be streamed live by NASA.

NASA wants to reduce Dimorphos' orbit by impacting it directly, cutting the time it now takes to encircle Didymos, which is 11 hours and 55 minutes, by 10 minutes. In the days that follow, ground observatories can see this shift.

The proof-of-concept project will bring to life what was previously only imagined in science fiction movies, most notably "Armageddon" and "Don't Look Up."

Graphic on NASA's DART mission to crash a small spacecraft into a mini-asteroid to change its trajectory as a test for any potentially dangerous asteroids in the future.

Technically challenging

The main camera system, DRACO, will begin to transmit down the first images of Dimorphos as the spacecraft drives itself through space, flying autonomously during the mission's final phase like a self-guided missile.

In a recent briefing, Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which houses mission control, said, "It's going to start out as a small point of light and then it's going to zoom and cover the whole complete field of view."

The planetary scientist said, "Until they stop, these pictures will persist.

A toaster-sized satellite dubbed LICIACube, which parted ways with DART a few weeks ago will fly past the collision location in a few minutes to take pictures of the impact and the ejecta, the pulverized rock that is hurled into space as a result of it.

In the days and months that follow, LICIACube's photo will be returned.

Many telescopes on Earth and in space, including the recently launched James Webb, are also keeping an eye on the event in case they may spot a brightening cloud of dust.

When the Hera mission from the European Space Agency, which will study Dimorphos's surface and determine its mass, which scientists can only assume right now, arrives four years later, a complete image of the system's structure will be revealed.

Being prepared

In our solar system's billions of asteroids and comets, few are thought to pose a threat to the Earth shortly.

However, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head scientist at NASA, asserted, "I guarantee to you that if you wait long enough, there will be an object."

We may infer this information from the geological record. For instance, the six-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid that impacted Earth 66 million years ago plunged the planet into a protracted winter and caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs and 75 percent of species.

In comparison, a Dimorphos-sized asteroid would only have a local impact, maybe destroying a city with more force than any nuclear weapon in history.Additionally, researchers are expecting to discover important new data that will teach them more about the characteristics of asteroids in general.

Whether the asteroid is solid rock or more like a "rubbish pile" of pebbles bound by reciprocal gravity will determine how much momentum DART puts on Dimorphos; however, this attribute is still unknown.

Furthermore, we are unsure of the object's precise shape—whether it resembles a dog bone or a donut—but NASA experts are optimistic that DART's SmartNav guiding system will find its intended target.

If it fails, NASA will try again in two years with only enough fuel on board for another trip.

However, Chabot stated that if it is successful, it will be a first step toward creating a society that can protect itself from a potential existential attack.

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