The asteroids they have always been one of Hollywood’s favorite pretexts. Armageddon, one of the highest grossing fiction films in the film industry, was released more than two decades ago. The story revolved around a group of oil rig drillers sent into space by the NASA to drill into the surface of an asteroid that threatened Earth. The objective was to destroy it with a nuclear bomb and the charisma of Bruce Willis, whose character died to save the Earth. Without underestimating the might of the superhero of yesteryear, in reality kinetic energy might work better than nuclear energy to mitigate the threat, or at least that’s the premise of the DART mission, a space technologies test that seeks to collide an asteroid to try to change its orbital period.

140 meters. No asteroid around that size could hit Earth in the next century

The Redirection Test Double Asteroid (DART) targets Dimorphos (Greek for “two forms”), the “moon” of a binary asteroid system, whose main body is Didymos (twins). This binary asteroid was chosen by NASA scientists as the ideal testing ground to test humans’ ability to deflect a potential impact threat on Earth.

The DART mission ship will launch at 22:20 (PST) on November 23 (November 24 for CDMX) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will depart from the Base of the Vandenberg Air Force in California. The dynamics of the binary asteroid will allow the collision with the spacecraft, similar in dimensions to those of a compact car, to cause a change in speed within the asteroid system. The impact should reduce the orbit of Dimorphos so that it rotates around the main body of the asteroid at least 73 seconds faster than before. This “push” would cause an orbital change. Elena Adams, a systems engineer at DART, sums up the test as the possibility of “changing the asteroid’s trajectory just a little bit”, but this minimal change at the space level would be the most effective tool to avoid a disaster in the event of an asteroid. threaten the Earth.

Technological journey

The spacecraft is equipped with various proven technologies, such as the ion propulsion system NEXT-C de la NASA, designed to improve performance and fuel efficiency for deep space missions. The energy will be supplied by two deployable solar panels of 8.5 meters each. The spacecraft will also deploy a high-gain flat antenna for more efficient communication between Earth and the spacecraft. Inside it was installed the DRACO camera, while the miniature Licia Cube satellite, designed by the Italian Space Agency, will capture images of the kinetic impact of DART and its immediate aftermath. The instrument will leave the aircraft ten days before impact and will remain 55 kilometers from Dimorphos.

$ 330 million cost involved in setting up the DART mission

The mission will travel at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour and will encounter the asteroid in the fall of 2022, 11 million miles from Earth. Thanks to the incorporated technologies and ground-based telescopes, all the details of the crash and its effects can be captured. Four hours before impact, the aircraft system will drive autonomously and scientists will only have to witness the results. The orbital change will be evidenced by a change in brightness and the hit of the spacecraft is expected to generate a crater 10 meters.

Dimorphos is about one-fifth the size of the main body of the binary asteroid, so its mass and speed represent the ideal target for a demonstration that also ensures not to create a threat, where there is none. On the other hand, the dimensions of this “moon” are closer to the size of asteroids that could become a real threat. NASA has identified more than 27,000 asteroids with trajectories that bring them closer to Earth. Andrew S. Rivkin, planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, responsible for the construction of the spacecraft, acknowledges that the chances of an asteroid landing on Earth are low, but “it’s good to have a policy of insurance ”.

Planetary defense

Lindley JohnsonNASA’s Planetary Defense Program officer has said that DART, a $ 330 million mission, will be the first demonstration of the “kinetic impactor” technique in which a spacecraft deliberately collides at high speed with the intention of change the trajectory of a celestial object. “This technique is believed to be the most technologically mature approach to mitigating a potentially dangerous asteroid and that it will help planetary defense experts refine computer models of the kinetic asteroid impactor, giving insight into how we might deflect objects close to it. Potentially dangerous land in the future ”.

NASA scientists consider the impact of an asteroid to be the only natural disaster that could be avoided, it is only necessary to identify in good time the asteroids that present potential risks to our planet. The Center for the Study of Near Earth Objects has a highly automated monitoring system. The Sentry continuously scans the asteroid catalog, updating the possibilities of future impact with Earth for the next 100 years.

In an interview recently presented by NASA, Clayton KacheleChief of the mission has said that DART is probably not worthy of an asteroid movie, but it is a fascinating and useful project because it is about the future safety of the Earth, as asteroid damage has been around since the time of the dinosaurs until the Chelyabinsk meteorite impact in 2013. The event Kachele refers to is also known as “The Chelyabinsk racing car”, Which hit 80 kilometers from this Russian city south of the Ural Mountains and is considered to have released more than 30 thousand tons of dynamite.

Its detonation in the air, at an altitude of about 90 kilometers, produced a booming wave powerful enough to knock people out in its path. 1,200 people were admitted to hospitals for burns and eye damage. Scientists detected the effects of the asteroid in 50 villages on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk. From this chapter in the recent history of asteroids, there was a greater awareness of the effects of these types of events.

Risks such as those previously mentioned were those that prompted in 2016 the creation of the Planetary Defense Coordination (PDCO) for the early detection of potentially dangerous objects (PHOs). PDCO specialists consider it important to find asteroids before they find us. If an asteroid impact threat is discovered years or decades in advance, then a detour mission could be possible. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office supports projects to discover and track asteroids and calculate their orbits in the future.

Asteroid search teams supported by NASA’s NEO (Near Earth Objects) Observations Program have found more than 95% of currently known near-Earth asteroids. There are currently more than 18,000 known NEOs and the discovery rate averages around 40 per week.

The DART mission doesn’t end with the crash. The Hera mission, a program of the European Space Agency (ESA) space safety and security activities, is scheduled to launch in 2024 and rejoin the Didymos system in 2026. During the Hera mission, the main spacecraft and the two cube satellites that would accompany it, will carry out detailed studies of both asteroids, with special attention to the crater left by the DART collision. They will also conduct an accurate assessment of the mass of Dimorphos.

The detailed post-impact investigations of Hera will substantially enhance the planetary defense knowledge gained from the DART test. The members of both teams are part of the international collaboration known as AIDA, the international collaboration between researchers in planetary defense and asteroid science that will combine the data obtained.

NASA estimates that at least once a year an asteroid the size of a car hits Earth’s atmosphere, but burns up before reaching the surface. While no known asteroids larger than 140 meters in size have a significant chance of hitting the planet over the next century, only about 40% of those asteroids have been detected. In this scenario, “the insurance policy” that DART stands for is indispensable.

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