NASA has a very important mission. This is the first attempt to deflect an asteroid from its current orbit. Best of all, it is broadcasted live for everyone on Earth to see. For some time now, space agencies have focused on creating ground defense plans. And no, not only in case of extraterrestrial contact —although there is a procedure to follow in this situation—; rather, in case the Earth is threatened by a celestial body that wants to leave us in the same state as the ancient dinosaurs.
Fortunately, and unlike the dinosaurs, we have been able to create a plan to follow, and it has cost a not inconsiderable 240 million dollars. This takes place with the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft as the protagonist. At the indicated moment, DART charges diverting the orbit of an asteroid called Dimorphos, and which orbits a larger asteroid called 65803 Didymos, forming a binary system.
If you’re wondering if there’s a chance this could backfire on life on Earth, the answer is no. NASA has made it clear that there is no way that the asteroid or any material released at the time of the deflection directly affects our planet, or its people.
The 500-kilogram DART spacecraft was launched on November 24, 2021. During this date, the space vehicle set off for Dimorphos, the “moon” of Didymos, and which has a diameter of about 160 meters. A fraction of the 780 meters that the main body boasts.
Now, it finally reached its destination. And the space ship intentionally collides with the asteroid, in an attempt to deflect the small rock’s orbit around its parent. “This is an experiment at the scales that we want to use, or could use, if we ever need to deflect a real asteroid.” Andy Rivkin, mission scientist at Johns Hopkis University
How will we know if the mission was a success?
DART collides with a speed of 6.6 kilometers per second against the rock. Therefore, if it is able to vary the duration of Dimorphos’s orbit by about 73 seconds, the mission will be classified as successful. However, the scientists in charge believe that the variation is closer to 10 minutes.
Although DART has a camera on board, the spacecraft is destroyed on the spot, for this, the Italian Space Agency team has launched a sister ship, called LICIACube, and which is in charge of taking close shots of the event. The impact changes the trajectory, a cráter is formed and and LICIACube will photograph it.
Likewise, telescopes on land and space are in charge of monitoring the situation. Hubble and James Webb, for example, take measurements of Didymos’s orbits, and later the teams will compare them with measurements taken earlier.
But this is not all. In 2024, the European Space Agency is expected to launch another spacecraft called Hera, which will record the consequences of the impact in greater detail.