Why is a NASA spacecraft crashing into an asteroid?

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 22,500 km/h.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Within the first-of-its variety, save-the-world experiment, NASA is about to clobber a small, innocent asteroid thousands and thousands of miles away.

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 22,500 km/h. The impression ought to be simply sufficient to nudge the asteroid right into a barely tighter orbit round its companion area rock — demonstrating that if a killer asteroid ever heads our approach, we’d stand a preventing probability of diverting it.

You are reading: Why is a NASA spacecraft crashing into an asteroid?

“That is stuff of science-fiction books and actually corny episodes of “StarTrek” from once I was a child, and now it’s actual,” NASA program scientist Tom Statler stated Thursday.

Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, however it would take days and even weeks to seek out out if it truly modified the orbit.

The $325 million planetary defence take a look at started with Dart’s launch final fall.


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The asteroid with the bull’s-eye on it’s Dimorphos, about 9.6 million kilometres from Earth. It’s truly the puny sidekick of a 2,500-foot (780-metre) asteroid named Didymos, Greek for twin. Found in 1996, Didymos is spinning so quick that scientists imagine it flung off materials that finally fashioned a moonlet. Dimorphos — roughly 525 ft (160 metres) throughout — orbits its mum or dad physique at a distance of lower than a mile (1.2 kilometres).

A placard hangs on the wall during the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Technology Media Workshop Telecon Briefing and tour at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, on Sept. 12, 2022, ahead of the Sept. 26 project test mission.
A placard hangs on the wall in the course of the Double Asteroid Redirection Take a look at (DART) Know-how Media Workshop Telecon Briefing and tour on the Johns Hopkins Utilized Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, on Sept. 12, 2022, forward of the Sept. 26 venture take a look at mission.Picture by JIM WATSON /AFP by way of Getty Photographs

“This actually is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” stated Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission crew chief at Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory, which is managing the trouble. “This isn’t going to explode the asteroid. It isn’t going to place it into a number of items.” Reasonably, the impression will dig out a crater tens of yards (metres) in measurement and hurl some 2 million kilos (1 million kilograms) of rocks and filth into area.

NASA insists there’s a zero probability both asteroid will threaten Earth — now or sooner or later. That’s why the pair was picked.


The Johns Hopkins lab took a minimalist strategy in creating Dart — brief for Double Asteroid Redirection Take a look at — provided that it’s basically a battering ram and faces positive destruction. It has a single instrument: a digital camera used for navigating, focusing on and chronicling the ultimate motion. Believed to be basically a rubble pile, Dimorphos will emerge as some extent of sunshine an hour earlier than impression, looming bigger and bigger within the digital camera photos beamed again to Earth. Managers are assured Dart received’t smash into the bigger Didymos by mistake. The spacecraft’s navigation is designed to differentiate between the 2 asteroids and, within the closing 50 minutes, goal the smaller one.

The scale of a small merchandising machine at 1,260 kilos (570 kilograms), the spacecraft will slam into roughly 11 billion kilos (5 billion kilograms) of asteroid. “Typically we describe it as working a golf cart right into a Nice Pyramid,” stated Chabot.

Until Dart misses — NASA places the chances of that occuring at lower than 10% — will probably be the top of the street for Dart. If it goes screaming previous each area rocks, it would encounter them once more in a pair years for Take 2.


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Little Dimorphos completes a lap round large Didymos each 11 hours and 55 minutes. The impression by Dart ought to shave about 10 minutes off that. Though the strike itself ought to be instantly obvious, it may take a couple of weeks or extra to confirm the moonlet’s tweaked orbit. Cameras on Dart and a mini tagalong satellite tv for pc will seize the collision up shut. Telescopes on all seven continents, together with the Hubble and Webb area telescopes and NASA’s asteroid-hunting Lucy spacecraft, might even see a vivid flash as Dart smacks Dimorphos and sends streams of rock and filth cascading into area. The observatories will monitor the pair of asteroids as they circle the solar, to see if Dart altered Dimorphos’ orbit. In 2024, a European spacecraft named Hera will retrace Dart’s journey to measure the impression outcomes.

Though the supposed nudge ought to change the moonlet’s place solely barely, that can add as much as a serious shift over time, in response to Chabot. “So when you had been going to do that for planetary protection, you’ll do it 5, 10, 15, 20 years upfront to ensure that this system to work,” she stated. Even when Dart misses, the experiment nonetheless will present worthwhile perception, stated NASA program govt Andrea Riley. “That is why we take a look at. We wish to do it now somewhat than when there’s an precise want,” she stated.


Planet Earth is on an asteroid-chasing roll. NASA has near a pound (450 grams) of rubble collected from asteroid Bennu headed to Earth. The stash ought to arrive subsequent September. Japan was the primary to retrieve asteroid samples, conducting the feat twice. China hopes to observe swimsuit with a mission launching in 2025. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, in the meantime, is headed to asteroids close to Jupiter, after launching final yr. One other spacecraft, Close to-Earth Asteroid Scout, is loaded into NASA’s new moon rocket awaiting liftoff; it would use a photo voltaic sail to fly previous an area rock that’s lower than 60 ft (18 metres) subsequent yr. Within the subsequent few years, NASA additionally plans to launch a census-taking telescope to establish hard-to-find asteroids that would pose dangers. One asteroid mission is grounded whereas an unbiased evaluation board weighs its future. NASA’s Psyche spacecraft ought to have launched this yr to a metal-rich asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, however the crew couldn’t take a look at the flight software program in time.


Hollywood has churned out dozens of killer-space-rock motion pictures over the a long time, together with 1998′s “Armageddon” which introduced Bruce Willis to Cape Canaveral for filming, and final yr’s “Don’t Look Up” with Leonardo DiCaprio main an all-star forged. NASA’s planetary protection officer, Lindley Johnson, figures he’s seen all of them since 1979′s “Meteor,” his private favourite “since Sean Connery performed me.” Whereas a few of the sci-fi movies are extra correct than others, he famous, leisure all the time wins out. The excellent news is that the coast appears clear for the following century, with no recognized threats. In any other case, “it will be like the flicks, proper?” stated NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen. What’s worrisome, although, are the unknown threats. Fewer than half of the 460-foot (140-metre) objects have been confirmed, with thousands and thousands of smaller however still-dangerous objects zooming round. “These threats are actual, and what makes this time particular, is we are able to do one thing about it,” Zurbuchen stated. Not by blowing up an asteroid as Willis’ character did — that might be a final, last-minute resort — or by begging authorities leaders to take motion as DiCaprio’s character did in useless. If time permits, one of the best tactic could possibly be to nudge the menacing asteroid out of our approach, like Dart.


The Related Press Well being and Science Division receives assist from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Training. The AP is solely accountable for all content material.

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