Countless science fiction films have already addressed the threat: an asteroid exactly on a collision course with the earth. Now, for the first time, NASA is testing the behavior of an asteroid when it hits a space probe. Whether or how the trajectory of the asteroid was actually changed is still to be checked on the basis of the data obtained.
To test whether an asteroid could be thrown off course, NASA sent a spacecraft on a collision course with an asteroid the size of a soccer stadium. It is the first test of this kind in human history. This mission was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket on November 24, 2021.
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The space probe, aptly named DART, has now successfully collided with the asteroid Dimorphos, when it was only about 11 million kilometers from Earth. The targeted object, the asteroid Didymos, actually consists of two asteroids, of which the smaller one, the target object Dimorphos (= Didymos B), orbits the larger one, Didymos A, like a moon. Didymos A has a diameter of 780 meters, Dimorphos only 160 meters in diameter. Dimorphos orbits Didymos A at a distance of just over a kilometer in just under 12 hours. The mission’s space probe, called DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), flew at a speed of around 22,000 kilometers per hour directly towards the smaller of the two asteroids in order to impact Dimorphos. Live video of its final seconds showed the asteroid’s rugged surface approaching before the probe slammed there with a kinetic energy of about 3 tons of TNT equivalent.
Shortly after the impact, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Research Division, declared the successful test as the beginning of a “new era for mankind”:
“It’s an era where we’re potentially able to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous asteroid impact (…) That’s an amazing thing. We’ve never had that opportunity.”
Samson Reony, commentator on the mission at Johns Hopkins University’s (APL) Applied Physics Laboratory, was also enthusiastic about this “groundbreaking” feat:
“When science, technology and a great goal, namely defending the planet, come together, it’s a magical moment.”
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At a press conference following the impact, the DART scientists called the mission a success, but pointed out that it would be about two months before they knew if the ultimate goal – to change Dimorphos’ trajectory – had been achieved be.
The scientists also emphasized that the spacecraft could not smash the asteroid Dimorphos. The spacecraft has a mass of just 570 kilograms compared to the 5 billion kilograms of the asteroid’s mass. Although there is currently no known asteroid larger than 140 meters that poses a significant threat of hitting Earth in the next century, it is estimated that only 40 percent of these potentially dangerous asteroids have been identified in our solar system.
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