NASA launches first mission to test asteroid deflection

If an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, can humanity be saved not with a bang, however with a nudge?

NASA is poised to analyze simply that with a first-of-its-kind mission to deflect an asteroid by deliberately crashing a spacecraft into it. The mission gives a uncommon, real-world probability to check a planetary protection technique that might shield Earth from a doubtlessly catastrophic collision sooner or later.

The $325 million DART mission, brief for Double Asteroid Redirection Check, launched Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. ET from Vandenberg House Power Base in California. The spacecraft rode into orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

DART staff members carry out a closing inspection of one of many spacecraft’s two rollout photo voltaic arrays in August. Ed Whitman / NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

The probe will spend nearly a 12 months journeying to an asteroid system greater than 6.5 million miles away from Earth. The mission’s goal is Dimorphos, an area rock measuring 525 toes throughout that orbits a a lot bigger asteroid named Didymos, which measures round 2,500 toes throughout.

Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a menace to the planet, in accordance with NASA, however the system is a “excellent testing floor” for whether or not crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid can successfully change its movement in house.

Subsequent fall, NASA will smash the DART spacecraft into Dimorphos at a pace of round 15,000 mph. Telescopes on Earth have been learning Didymos and its “moonlet” Dimorphos for many years, and have noticed that the smaller house rock circles its bigger counterpart as soon as each 11 hours and 55 minutes, mentioned Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist on the Johns Hopkins College Utilized Physics Laboratory and the mission’s coordination lead.

Chabot and her colleagues need to see if the cosmic collision can alter Dimorphos’ almost 12-hour orbit. NASA estimates that the maneuver will change the pace of the house rock’s orbit by only a fraction of a p.c — a distinction of solely a number of minutes — however the shift needs to be detectable by ground-based telescopes.

“This is not going to destroy the asteroid — it is simply going to present it a small nudge,” she mentioned earlier this month in a information briefing. “It is really going to deflect its path across the bigger asteroid, so we’re demonstrating asteroid deflection on this double asteroid system.”

The DART probe will probably be destroyed within the check, however a small, Italian-built cubesat that the spacecraft will deploy greater than every week earlier than the crash will beam again images of the affect and its aftermath.

A follow-up mission developed by the European House Company will conduct a extra detailed investigation of the Didymos system and can assess the end result of the DART probe’s deflection. That mission, often known as Hera, is slated to launch in October 2024.

No identified asteroid bigger than 450 toes has a major probability of smashing into the planet over the following 100 years, in accordance with NASA, however the company mentioned solely a fraction of smaller near-Earth objects have been discovered thus far.

The company’s Planetary Protection Coordination Workplace is tasked with looking for near-Earth objects which can be doubtlessly hazardous to the planet, together with those who enterprise inside 5 million miles of Earth’s orbit, and objects massive sufficient to trigger important injury in the event that they hit the floor.

If sooner or later a big house rock is discovered on a collision course with Earth, assessments just like the DART mission may assist NASA reply to the menace.

“It is very uncommon for an asteroid to affect the Earth,” mentioned Lindley Johnson, a planetary protection officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., “however it’s one thing we need to find out about properly forward of time.”