NASA is about to launch a spacecraft with one easy mission: Smash into an asteroid at 15,000 miles per hour.

The mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, leaves Earth early on Wednesday to check whether or not slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid can nudge it into a special trajectory. Results from the take a look at, if profitable, will turn out to be useful if NASA and different house businesses ever must deflect an asteroid to avoid wasting Earth and avert a catastrophic affect.

The DART spacecraft is scheduled to raise off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday at 1:20 a.m. Eastern time (or 10:20 p.m. native time) from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

NASA plans to host a livestream of the launch on its YouTube channel beginning at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

If unhealthy climate across the Vandenberg launch website prompts a delay, the following alternative for liftoff could be about 24 hours later.

NASA is crashing DART into an asteroid to check, for the primary time, a way of planetary protection that might someday save a metropolis, or possibly the entire planet, from a catastrophic asteroid affect.

DART “is something of a replay of Bruce Willis’s movie, ‘Armageddon,’ although that was totally fictional,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, mentioned in an interview.

If all goes as deliberate with DART, NASA can have a confirmed weapon in its planetary protection arsenal. Should a special asteroid ever wind up on a collision course with Earth, the world’s house businesses would believe that an asteroid missile like DART would shoo the house rock away.

After launching to house, the spacecraft will make practically one full orbit across the solar earlier than it crosses paths with Dimorphos, a football-field-size asteroid that carefully orbits a much bigger asteroid, referred to as Didymos, each 11 hours and 55 minutes. Astronomers name these two asteroids a binary system, the place one is a mini-moon to the opposite. Together, the 2 asteroids make one full orbit across the solar each two years.

Dimorphos poses no risk to Earth, and the mission is actually goal observe. DART’s affect will occur in late September or early October subsequent yr, when the binary asteroids are at their closest level to Earth, roughly 6.8 million miles away.

Four hours earlier than affect, the DART spacecraft, formally referred to as a kinetic impactor, will autonomously steer itself straight towards Dimorphos for a head-on collision at 15,000 miles per hour. An onboard digital camera will seize and ship again photographs to Earth in actual time till 20 seconds earlier than affect. A tiny satellite tv for pc from the Italian Space Agency, deployed 10 days earlier than the affect, will come as shut as 34 miles from the asteroid to snap photographs each six seconds within the moments earlier than and after DART’s affect.

Telescopes on Earth will repair their lenses on the crash website, displaying the 2 asteroids as tiny dots of mirrored daylight. To measure whether or not DART’s affect modified Dimorphos’s orbit round Didymos, astronomers will monitor the time between one flicker of sunshine — which signifies that Dimorphos has handed in entrance of Didymos — and one other, which signifies that Dimorphos has orbited behind Didymos.

If Dimorphos’s orbit round Didymos is prolonged by at the least 73 seconds, DART can have efficiently carried out its mission. But mission managers count on the affect to elongate the asteroid’s orbit much more, by about 10 and 20 minutes.

Simply putting hazardous house rocks with a nuclear weapon, like in “Armageddon” and different science fiction catastrophe movies, might create a area of extra hazardous house rocks, multiplying the risks posed to Earth, slightly than eliminating them.

Still, a nuclear gadget, if used the appropriate approach, is one of some conceptual instruments inside NASA’s planetary protection toolbox.

For any small and distant asteroids that might threaten Earth within the subsequent few a long time, a mission like DART “has a pretty good probability of getting the job done,” mentioned Brent Barbee, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“But if the asteroid is any bigger than that, or if the warning time is any shorter than that, then that’s where you transition from looking at kinetic impactors to nuclear devices,” Mr. Barbee mentioned.

Astronomers and officers from numerous house businesses have simulated deflecting an asteroid away from Earth with the pressure of nuclear blasts.

Other asteroid-destroying simulations have proven that nuclear explosives may very well be used to annihilate some smaller asteroids as shut as two months from affect, whereas posing little threat to Earth.

“There’s a lot of challenging aspects of a nuclear mission besides just the physics of the device itself, and how the device would interact with the asteroid,” Mr. Barbee mentioned.

Treaties that ban the usage of nuclear weapons, and the Outer Space Treaty, the cornerstone set of worldwide house legal guidelines signed within the Sixties, prohibit the position or use of nuclear weapons in house

That means that any nations’ emergency use of a nuclear-tipped spacecraft to fend off a killer asteroid would quantity to a treaty violation. But that authorized predicament may very well be resolved by an emergency assembly of the United Nations Security Council.

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