5 keys to the first interplanetary defense test in history

  • This morning, a spacecraft the size of a car will crash into an asteroid 10 million times larger to try to divert its course

Humanity has successfully overcome the first interplanetary defense mission in history. The objective: to defeat an innocuous enemy in order to know what to do in case a real threat approaches one day. With that purpose in mind, early Monday morning, NASA’s DART mission crashed into a gigantic asteroid to divert your course.

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The collision, which has been monitored from all corners of the planet, has faced a spacecraft the size of a small car against a celestial body 10 million times larger. It has been the first time that our species has achieved change the trajectory of a spatial object: something that, in the future, could be key to the survival of our planet.

These are 5 keys to understand NASA’s DART mission: the first interplanetary defense test in history.

Why has an interplanetary defense mission been launched?

There are billions of asteroids and comets roaming around our Solar System right now. At the moment, of all those that are known, none poses a threat to our planet. But what would happen if one day one of these objects headed our way? The impact of an asteroid could potentially put life on Earth in check. Take, for example, the case of the dinosaurs, who faced a mass extinction event after the impact of a gigantic asteroid about 66 million years ago.

It has been a decade since the world’s great space agencies launched several ‘space defense’ mechanisms to monitor asteroids close to our planet. One of the episodes that most encouraged the takeoff of this type of program occurred on February 15, 2013when an undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere and exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The shock wave of the explosion was felt in six cities, injured 1,600 people, caused damage valued at 30 million dollars and, according to NASA scientists, “remembered that asteroids can hit the Earth at any time”.

What is the DART mission and what is on board?

The DART mission – whose name literally means dart – has been designed as a planetary defense essay. The project, launched on November 24, 2021, has tested a kinetic impact technique to deflect the trajectory of an asteroid. The mission is made up of a space ship relatively small formed by a main body (1.8 meters wide, 1.9 meters long, and 2.6 meters high) and two solar panels (8.5 meters each). The vehicle weighs about 610 kilograms in total and is equipped with 50 kilograms of fuel.

The mission is equipped with a asteroid reconnaissance camera, baptized with the name of DRACO, which will help to identify the celestial body, navigate towards it and select the place of impact. The mission also consists of a little spaceship of size of a shoe box developed by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and known as LICIACube. This ‘space companion’ has been designed to capture images of the impact.

Are Didymus and Dimorph a threat to humanity?

No. The asteroid Didymus and its moon Dimorph they pose no threat to our planet. These celestial bodies are located more than 11 million kilometers of our planet. According to current projections, the course of these celestial bodies does not intersect with that of our planet. As explained by the scientific team in charge of this mission, Didimo and Dimorph are “close enough” to be able to observe their trajectory (and their possible change) and “far enough” so that, even when they shatter, they do not pose a threat. for us.

What will happen to this asteroid and its moon?

The objective of the DART mission is not to completely destroy these celestial objects, but rather divert your path. To achieve this, the mission has hit directly into the center of Dimorphs. The crash has generated a crater in the center of the satellite, has caused a detachment of rocks and dust into space and, in doing so, has managed to shorten the orbital period of this moon. This, in practice, has meant a deviation of the asteroid’s trajectory of ten meters.

How will we know if it has worked?

The scientific team in charge of the mission has various mechanisms to know if the first interplanetary defense test achieves its goal. First, minutes before impact, DART’s onboard camera will send some images prior to its collision in front of the asteroid. On the other hand, from Earth, a network of telescopes the course of the asteroid will be monitored in real time. If after the impact a change in the brightness of Didymus and Dimorphs is observed, this will mean that DART has achieved its objective. Finally, from space, it is predicted that LICIACube will record the collision and send the images back to Earth. These frames will take a few days to reach our hands, but when they do, they will be the definitive proof that humanity has managed to deflect an asteroid.

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