NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday: what you need to know

NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday: what you need to know

On Monday, NASA will test a concept straight out of Hollywood: see if we can deflect an asteroid heading toward our planet by crashing into it with a spacecraft. At the Europlanet 2022 Scientific Congress this week, mission researchers shared details not only about how they’re going to crash the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft into the asteroid, but also how they’ll know if their mission has succeeded.

“We’re going to go to a double asteroid, the binary asteroids Didymos and Dimorphos, and we’re going to change Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos by redirecting it,” Andy Rivkin, DART research team leader at the University’s Applied Physics Laboratory Johns Hopkins said while outlining the objectives of the mission. “This is an experiment on the kind of scales we could use if we ever needed to deflect a real asteroid.”

But the DART mission is just the beginning of our exploration of Dimorphos and Didymos: it will be aided by a number of robotic partners, including a European mission due to launch in a few years.

DART mission time and how to watch

The DART collision with Dimorphos is scheduled for 7:14 p.m. ET on Monday, but NASA will start broadcasting it live at 6 p.m.

DART has an onboard camera called the Didymos Asteroid and Reconnaissance Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) that will be used primarily for navigation, but will also collect images of the asteroid as the spacecraft approaches it. However, once the collision occurs, these onboard systems will not be in a position to collect any more data.

DART recently deployed its own small imaging satellites called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids, or LICIACube. With two optical cameras on board, this CubeSat will stay close to the impact site to take images of the immediate effects of the impact, to confirm that the impact did indeed occur, and to see the plume of material thrown up by the impact and the crater it forms. .

DART Mission Objectives

The pair of asteroids are not really a threat to Earth, although they pass relatively close to our planet. At the moment of impact, they will be nearly 7 million miles from Earth. That means they’re hard to see, even with precise instruments.

“From Earth, Didymos and Dimorphos are too close together and two small to be seen as more than a point of light,” Rivkin said.

To see what effects DART’s impact will have on asteroids, mission scientists will need to use some specialized tools, including an international network of large ground-based telescopes on all seven continents. There will be measurements coming from space telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope as well. Even NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, which is headed to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, will observe the binary asteroid.

“As [the asteroids] it just shows up as a point of light to telescopes, we’re going to see how the brightness of that point of light goes up and down,” Rivkin said. “When Dimorphos goes after Didymos, the brightness drops a bit and then goes back up when he reappears. When Dimorphos moves in front of Didymos, we can again see a drop in brightness due to shadow.”

By looking at the time it takes for these changes in brightness to occur, the researchers can see how long it takes for the two asteroids to orbit each other. And you can compare this orbital period before and after the DART impact to see what a difference it makes.

HERA, a follow-up to ESA’s DART, will be launched in a few years. THIS

HERA mission: ESA follow-up to DART

But the researchers need more detailed information about how the asteroid is changed by the DART impact if they ever hope to use such a concept in a real Earth-threatening emergency. The mission will also collect information up close.

But there is a limit to the information that a small CubeSat with two cameras can collect. To truly understand the changes that occurred at impact, planetary scientists need a second spacecraft to go and look at the debris. That’s the job of Hera, a European Space Agency mission set to launch in 2024 to visit asteroids in 2026.

Once she reaches the asteroid system, Hera will begin by taking a global view of the pair from a safe distance to look at features such as their shape and mass. Hera will then deploy her own pair of small CubeSats to investigate further, getting closer and closer to the asteroids before landing on them.

One of Hera’s big goals is to measure the mass of the smaller asteroid Dimorphos. Although we know the mass of the larger Didymos, the mass of the smaller “moonite” is still unknown, and this information is vitally important. “We need it so we can assess how efficient the transfer of momentum is from the spacecraft to the asteroid,” said Michael Küppers, Hera project scientist at the European Space Astronomy Center.

This allows researchers to know how far the asteroid has drifted and, along with more data Hera will gather about the asteroid’s physical properties, will allow us to predict whether this type of drift might be enough to throw a potentially dangerous asteroid off its path. Land.

Finding out if we can actually crash spacecraft into asteroids to protect the planet will be a long-term effort, and we’ll have to wait several years for the Hera data to know the full effects of the DART impact. But for those who can’t wait, the first impact data will be available within days or weeks.

“We’ll know pretty quickly if DART hit or not,” Rivkin said, with rough information about how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit soon after. But he emphasized the experimental nature of the mission, as there are unknowns that vary from the angle at which the spacecraft hits the asteroid, to the shape and internal composition of the asteroid, to the texture of the asteroid’s soil, all of which can affect the results.

The many unknowns are part of what makes this mission so exciting, as it gives researchers the opportunity to learn about asteroids and impact craters, as well as practice planetary defense strategies.

“We’re open to a lot of different results that are interesting and help us understand the planetary defense implications of what we’re doing,” Rivkin said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.