Thursday, December 8

The DART spacecraft tries to hit an asteroid: the planetary defense test, before its decisive test

Throwing a dart at a target located 11 million kilometers away, and hitting it, seems crazy. In English, the word ‘dart’ is said ‘dart’, and that is precisely the name of the mission and the spacecraft designed by NASA to impact tonight at a speed of 24,000 kilometers per hour on a peculiar target: the asteroid Dimorphos. The crash, with which it is intended to change the course of that 160-meter boulder, is scheduled for 1:14 in the morning. We can sleep easy, because Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth.

How big does the asteroid have to be to take us to extinction?

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The DART mission (acronym in capital letters for Double Asteroid Redirection Test or Double Asteroid Redirection Test) was launched into space on November 24 and it is now, 10 months later, when the dart is about to hit the target. This mission is the first dedicated to the so-called Planetary Defense, an endeavor that is not only part of Hollywood blockbusters.

“We intend to better understand the key aspects that influence the transfer of kinetic momentum by a projectile without an explosive charge. It is a physical experiment with which we want to know the efficiency with which a kamikaze projectile excavates a crater in an asteroid, launching the materials from the asteroid’s surface in the opposite direction to the projectile”, declared last week in a CSIC press release the Spanish astrophysicist Josep Maria Trigo-Rodríguez, member of the scientific team of the mission and member of both the Institute of Space Sciences and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia.

These days there are many comparisons about the size of Dimorphos in relation to terrestrial icons: the Roman Colosseum, the great pyramid in Egypt, a roller coaster in Las Vegas… It is true that it does not pose any threat, but you have to prepare and check if the strategy of the carom, in the style of billiard balls, is effective in deflecting a larger asteroid in the future that may pose a risk.

After DART, Hera arrives

After the impact received, the orbit of Dimorphos will change. It is expected to do so minimally, but that variation will be measurable (scientists believe). However, a new mission will be necessary to discover many other consequences of the crash. Among them, studying what the crater will be like and how the dust plume that will project the impact will behave.

For this reason, the European Space Agency (ESA) is building Hera, a 870-kilogram ‘detective’ ship that should start its journey to Dimorphos in October 2024 and meet the asteroid in December 2026.

“The Dimorphos plume will turn the lunar asteroid into a kind of man-made comet. Its temporary tail will take between weeks and months to disperse, which will allow us to observe its interior to understand its composition and, more importantly for planetary defense, its density or lack of density”, they point out from ESA.

The impact, live: