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Spacecraft crashes into asteroid at 15,000 km/h is no self-indulgent NASA experiment, writes TOM LEONARD

One day in late September, a box-shaped spacecraft weighing about half a ton traveling at 25,000 mph will slam into an asteroid seven million miles away from Earth, trying to thrust it into a new orbit.

This suicide mission by a golf cart-sized craft isn’t just some self-indulgent experiment devised by NASA scientists with money to burn.

Humanity’s future could depend on its success, as the $330 million Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) may provide the answer to a problem that has puzzled astronomers for centuries: what to do if a asteroid is on collision course with our planet.

“This is a mission for planet Earth – all the peoples of the earth – because we would all be threatened,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson, adding that Dart has “turned science fiction into science fact.”

The DART mission will reach its final stage later this year when the object hits the asteroid Dimorphos. reaches

Since the 1980s, when scientists first realized that the six-mile-wide Chicxulub crater off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula had been left behind by an asteroid whose impact caused the massive destruction of all non-avian dinosaurs, Hollywood has latched on to it. blockbuster potential of such a storyline.

Movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact and, most recently, Don’t Look Up, have all made millions at the Box Office by capitalizing on our fears of an extinction level caused by a planet-destroying asteroid.

And according to NASA, such fears are not misplaced. It has classified about 28,000 asteroids as “near-earth” objects, and the scientists believe there could be thousands large enough to cause catastrophic damage if they hit Earth.

The nearly 200 impact craters found so far around the world testify to the fact that the Earth has been knocked down quite a bit by asteroids over the millennia.

Pictured is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took DART off the planet when it launched in November 2021

Pictured is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took DART off the planet when it launched in November 2021

The role of the DART mission is to test the effectiveness of an asteroid deflection method using a “kinetic impactor,” in this case a spacecraft traveling at more than four miles per second.

NASA hopes to determine that if you hit an asteroid or comet hard enough while it is far enough from Earth, you can knock it off course so that it never hits us.

Dart was launched last June aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from a California air base. Rock with a diameter of 2,560 feet.

Neither is on a collision course with Earth, and they were chosen because even if Dimorphos is successfully rerouted, there’s no risk of it coming even close to us.

Once in the Didymos system, it will hit the moonlet head-on, powered by its electric propulsion system powered by 28-foot-long solar panels.

The more material from the asteroid is crushed by the impact of Dimorphos, the more it will be moved off its course.

Scientists expect the impact will send the small asteroid into a tighter orbit around the larger one. The spaceship, meanwhile, is destroyed.

All of this will be captured by a small Italian-built satellite carried by DART, which will be released days before the spacecraft hits the asteroid so it can record the aftermath of the collision.

Meanwhile, a built-in camera broadcasts images of the moment of impact.

Scientists will also be able to follow what happens with a telescope from Earth and four years later by another satellite, Hera, which will be launched by the European Space Agency in 2024.

The spacecraft is powered by two Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA), which provide it with solar energy

The spacecraft is powered by two Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA), which provide it with solar energy

It makes sense to work out a way to deal with an incoming asteroid because unlike other natural threats like earthquakes and volcanoes, we can see one coming if it’s still years away.

And experts generally believe it’s a matter of when, not if, the Earth will face it next.

As we’ve seen, Hollywood long ago went on to say that asteroids were worthy of disaster movie treatment.

Inevitably, the methods they devise to avert the impending destruction of the world were rather more dramatic than the DART.

In the 1998 film Armageddon, a team of tough, deep-sea oil-drillers led by Bruce Willis are sent into space to face a Texas-sized asteroid about to hit Earth and wipe out all life. to row in 18 days. †

An advanced version of the Space Shuttle has them land on the rock where they detonate an atomic bomb, splitting the asteroid into two halves that both fly safely past the planet.

The plot isn’t entirely ridiculous — NASA has, in fact, trained astronauts on how to actually land and walk on an asteroid, mimicking the near-gravity-free conditions on the seafloor off the coast of Florida.

Possible scenarios put forward for an asteroid landing could include a mission to collect rock samples — asteroids are known to sometimes contain rare elements — or to install rocket motors on the surface that can then be activated to alter their orbits.

But as for blowing up an asteroid, scientists believe that even if it were possible (and after being thrown around in space for centuries, being extremely hardy), the core’s gravity would actually force the rock back together.

When it arrives at Dimoprhos, it will crash head-on into the asteroid in an attempt to change its course

When it arrives at Dimoprhos, it will crash head-on into the asteroid in an attempt to change its course

An alternative that scientists say could work would be to detonate an atomic bomb or missile near the asteroid, but the use of nuclear weapons in space is prohibited under international law, so testing that risky proposition is highly unlikely at this point.

Another theory is that the gravity exerted by a spacecraft flying close by — what’s known as a “gravity puller” — could be enough to push the asteroid on a new course.

But beyond the wisdom of risking it all on Bruce Willis, perhaps the main reason Armageddon was so unrealistic was the timetable.

According to Nancy Chabot, a project scientist for DART, no spacecraft could be launched at the last minute to save Earth.

“This is something that you do five, ten, 15, 20 years in advance — gently push the asteroid so that it happily sails its way and has no impact on Earth,” she said.

Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos and was chosen because even if something goes wrong, it is in no danger of coming on a collision course with Earth

Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos and was chosen because even if something goes wrong, it is in no danger of coming on a collision course with Earth

That’s fine if you’ve been warned enough.

While nearly all of the largest “near Earth” asteroids have already been located and none of them risk hitting us within at least the next century, of the estimated 28,000 out there that are at least 460 feet wide, only 10,000 are seen.

And even the smallest of those is big enough to devastate a small American state.

Scientists are constantly photographing space in search of new asteroids and using computers to detect any sign of movement, such as when something passes in front of a distant star.

However, smaller asteroids shine more dimly and must get quite close to Earth before they are noticed.

A mountain-sized asteroid known as OR2 from 1998 shot past Earth two years ago in what NASA called a “close approach” — actually 3.9 million miles away.

Future plans could involve astronauts landing on asteroids themselves to collect rock samples or attempting to change course by installing rocket engines on the objects

Future plans could involve astronauts landing on asteroids themselves to collect rock samples or attempting to change course by installing rocket engines on the objects

In 1999, the world looking to space was horrified when a previously undetected “city killer” asteroid as wide as 120 meters came within a 65,000-mile radius of Earth — less than one-fifth the distance from the moon. .

Michael Brown, an Australian astronomer, said it “would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon” had it hit the planet.

Smaller space rocks — also called meteors — generally burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, visible as so-called shooting stars.

In 2013, a previously undetected meteor about 20 meters wide erupted over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, releasing as much as 30 times more energy than the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima.

Some scientists say it burned with such intensity that it was brighter than the sun.

Earth hasn’t been hit by a major meteor since the Tunguska event of 1908, when an estimated 250 feet across graciously landed in an uninhabited area of ​​Siberia.

It destroyed 80 million trees and left charred reindeer carcasses over an area twice the size of Los Angeles.

Had it arrived four hours later, it would have devastated Saint Petersburg.

Every year, the June 30 anniversary of the Siberian incident is marked by Asteroid Day.

The co-founders — including the late Stephen Hawking and Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May — aim to raise awareness of the asteroid threat and what can be done to protect Earth.

A small spacecraft called DART could provide a nudge in the right direction.

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