humanity has hijacked an asteroid for the first time

After the DART spacecraft entered the asteroid Dimorphos, the Hubble Space Telescope captured images of the ejected plume of dust and debris that flowed thousands of miles behind the space rock.Credit: NASA/European Space Agency/Space Telescope Science Institute/Hubble

Humans have for the first time proven that they can alter the trajectory of a massive boulder hurtling through space. NASA has announced that the spacecraft it rammed into an asteroid on September 26 has successfully altered the space rock’s orbit around another asteroid – with better-than-expected results.

Agency officials had estimated that the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft would “bring” the asteroid Dimorphos closer to its partner, Didymos, and cut its orbit time around this rock by 10 to 15 minutes. At a press conference on October 11, the researchers confirmed that DART actually reduced orbit time by about 32 minutes.

Neither asteroid posed a threat to Earth, but the agency tested the maneuver on them to prove that humanity could, in principle, deflect an ominous space rock heading towards the planet.

“This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and a watershed moment for humanity,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

Follow-up follow-up

Determining whether the mission was successful relied on more than half a dozen telescopes around the world. Ground-based optical telescopes cannot resolve Didymos and Dimorphos, which are millions of miles from Earth and only a few hundred meters in diameter; rather, they see the pair as a single dot in the night sky. But telescopes can measure dips in brightness as Dimorphos passes in front and behind Didymos. Observers tracked these movements and compared them to orbit times before the collision to calculate DART’s impact.

Independently, a pair of radar installations – the Goldstone Observatory in Fort Irwin, California, and the Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia – pointed their antennas at the pair of asteroids. Unlike optical telescopes, planetary radar can discern the two asteroids as separate objects, allowing astronomers to view their respective positions and estimate Dimorphos’ orbit time around Didymos.

Both sets of observations agreed that the DART impact brought Dimorphos several tens of meters closer to its companion and reduced its cycle time to around 11 hours and 23 minutes.

Although the orbit reduction is larger than expected, it remains within the range of possibilities that scientists have modeled. The researchers believe the maneuver succeeded to the extent that it did because Dimorphos is more of a loose collection of rocks than a solid chunk that would be harder to deflect. Another reason for the dramatic change in orbit is that when DART hit, lots of debris flew out of the asteroid in tails, each several thousand miles long, and their recoil likely accentuated DART’s impact. , researchers said at the press conference.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to really understand what happened,” said Tom Statler, DART program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.

Save the Earth

Scientists will continue to observe the couplet of asteroids in the coming months, hoping to learn more about the shape of Dimorphos’ new orbit and whether the DART impact has introduced a “wobble” to the planet. ‘asteroid. With the help of images from LICIACube – the Italian Space Agency’s probe that tracked DART and then flew overhead to capture the impact – scientists hope to learn more about the properties of the ejected debris.

But the mission’s final postmortem won’t be complete for the better part of a decade. Launched in its wake, the European Space Agency’s Hera mission – currently scheduled for liftoff in October 2024 – is expected to arrive at Dimorphos in 2027, to observe the aftermath of the DART impact.

So far, the results indicate that the US$330 million DART mission was a success. But defending Earth from future impacts requires a few things, the researchers say: knowing the locations and properties of all dangerous space rocks and having enough time to act. DART launched in November last year and took about 10 months to reach its goal.

If a threatening asteroid was really heading for Earth, said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and DART coordinator at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, a mission would have to be launched years in the future. advance to deflect it safely. “Warning is really key here,” she said, adding that even space rocks larger than the 160-meter-wide Dimorphos could be handled with enough planning and time.

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