NASA spacecraft crashes into an asteroid, the first in the world

published on Tuesday, September 27, 2022 at 08:45

This unprecedented test mission should allow humanity to learn how to protect itself from a possible future threat from space.

Confirmed impact: A NASA spacecraft deliberately crashed into an asteroid on Monday, September 26, to deflect its trajectory, during an unprecedented test mission that should allow humanity to learn how to protect itself from a possible future threat. The ship, smaller than a car, rushed at a speed of more than 20,000 km / h on its target, reached at the scheduled time.

The NASA teams, gathered at the mission control center in Maryland, in the United States, exploded with joy at the moment of the collision.

A few minutes earlier, the asteroid Dimorphos, located about 11 million kilometers from Earth, has grown little by little in the spectacular images broadcast live by the ship. We could clearly make out the pebbles on its gray surface, just before the images stopped at the moment of the explosion. “We are embarking on a new era, where we potentially have the ability to protect ourselves from a dangerous asteroid impact,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA.

Dimorphos is about 160 meters in diameter and does not represent any danger to our planet. It is actually the satellite of a larger asteroid, Didymos, which has so far circumnavigated in 11 hours and 55 minutes. NASA seeks to reduce the orbit of Dimorphos in 10 minutes, that is, to bring it closer to Didymos. It will take a few days to a few weeks before scientists can confirm that the asteroid’s trajectory has been altered. They will do this thanks to telescopes on Earth, which will observe the variation in brightness as the small asteroid passes in front of and behind the large one.

If the goal remains modest compared to the disaster scenarios in science fiction movies like “Armageddon,” this “planetary defense” mission, dubbed Dart, is the first to test such a technique. It allows NASA to train in case an asteroid threatens to hit Earth one day.

“I think Earthlings can now sleep soundly, I will,” said Elena Adams, a mission engineer. The ship had traveled for ten months since taking off in California. To hit a target as small as Dimorphos, the last phase of the flight was completely automated, like a self-guided missile. Three minutes after impact, a shoebox-sized satellite, called LICIACube and launched by the spacecraft upriver, was expected to pass within about 55 km of the asteroid to capture images of the ejection.

The event was also to be observed by the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes, which should be able to detect a bright cloud of dust and thus help assess the amount of material ejected. All this should allow a better understanding of the composition of Dimorphos, representative of a population of fairly common asteroids, and therefore measure the exact effect that this technique, called kinetic impact, can have on them. The European probe Hera, which will take off in 2024, will also closely observe Dimorphos in 2026 to assess the consequences of the impact and calculate, for the first time, the mass of the asteroid.

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