NASA Launches Probe on Asteroid Collision Course

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NASA will send a spacecraft into orbit to nuke an asteroid.
NASA is currently testing a method to divert asteroids heading for Earth that could kill cities.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, (DART), launches at 1 :20 a.m. ET on Wednesday. Below, you can see it live.

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NASA is about launch a new space probe that will take it on a long journey towards self-destruction.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, also known as DART, is a mission that sends a spacecraft to nearly 7 million mile to crash into an asteroid. The probe, which measures 4 feet in width, is small compared to the Colosseum-sized, massive asteroid it is aiming for. The impact should give the space rock enough nudge to alter its orbit around a larger asteroid.

NASA is testing whether such an nudge could oneday divert a rogue satellite headed for Earth. NASA estimates that there are only about 40% of potentially dangerous asteroids within 140 meters (450ft) of Earth. Scientists have not yet found any. A single asteroid could wipe out entire cities.

The 160-m dimorphos asteroid is compared to Rome’s Colosseum.

ESA-Science Office

DART will start its journey at 1 :20 a.m. ET on Wednesday, DART will take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base (California) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket. If all goes according plan, it will reach its destination in Sept 2022.

NASA will livestream launch on YouTube beginning at 12:30 AM. ET on Wednesday Watch, below:

According to Tom Statler (a NASA astrophysicist who worked on the mission), DART is a two-pronged test for a planetary defense method.

“The first test is to see if we can hit the asteroid with our technology. The second test is to see how an actual asteroid reacts to being hit. Statler stated that the first test ends and the next test begins at the moment the spacecraft is broken to pieces.” Statler told Insider. 

NASA will use the asteroid’s reaction to impact to determine how big future probes should become to move their targets.

NASA could save Earth from a city-killing asteroid — with 5 to 10 years’ advanced notice

DART will speed towards a pair asteroids for 10 months. One, a moonlet named Dimorphos, orbits Didymos. DART is aiming to find the moonlet. It is 525 feet in width, which is much smaller than its companion of 2,500 feet.

Earth is not at risk from either Didymos or Dimorphos. But they’re ideal for testing what NASA calls the “kinetic impactor” method — crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid at high speeds to nudge it in a different direction.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

It’s a complicated task because DART won’t be able see Dimorphos for at least an hour before impact. NASA engineers programmed the spacecraft so that it can quickly calculate the center of the asteroid and steer towards it.

The spacecraft will reach Dimorphos’s centre at 15,000 miles an hour (4 miles per second), transferring its energy to the asteroid, pushing it closer towards Didymos. NASA estimates that the impact could cause an explosion of between 22,000-220,000 pounds of rock material. This could give NASA a bigger push than DART. Dimorphos should orbit larger rocks about 10 minutes faster than previously.

Although the impact will occur at 6.8 million kilometers from Earth, astronomers will be observing with their telescopes to determine the orbital changes of the asteroid. 

If it works, it could save Earth from an asteroid that would kill its cities. There’s a catch. Experts have previously said that NASA needs to be notified in advance of any Earth-bound asteroid to use a DART mission like Insider to deflect such a threat.

DART technicians inspect the solar arrays on the spacecraft, August 2021.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

It takes many years to design and build spacecraft, then it takes months or years to travel there. A probe would have to impact an asteroid within a year of Earth’s orbit. A slight bump from a spacecraft impact would not cause the rock to drift off course for long. But, it would become more and more like Earth.

NASA is currently building a space telescope called Near-Earth Object Surveyor in order to quickly identify dangerous asteroids. It will be able to monitor asteroids up to 140 meters. Astronomers have already identified approximately 40% of these asteroids orbiting the sun near Earth. NASA hopes to increase that number to 90%.

Astronomers from Earth will soon be able see if DART was successful. The European Space Agency plans to launch a second mission, Hera, in 2026 to examine Didymossos and Dimorphos. Hera will examine the effects of the impact. It will map Dimorphos and measure its mass accurately, and examine the crater DART leaves there.

This post has been updated. This post was originally published November 20, 2020.

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