Many movies have shown a heroic band of astronauts going into space for a life-or-death mission—their usual enemy: asteroids.
Deep Impact and Armageddon are just some examples of these films. In the movies, audiences see how the protagonists avoid the asteroid from hitting the Earth by detonating a nuclear weapon and disintegrating it.
However, contrary to popular perception, scientists do not see the feasibility of completely disintegrating a large mass of rock hurling towards space at a speed of a thousand kilometers per second or more.
The answer, says scientists, is a safer and gentler way of handling a chunk of space rock: simply pushing it off course using a small spacecraft.
And NASA just did that this week when their spacecraft collided with an asteroid. The images from the machine were recorded and sent to the headquarters before the asteroid finally obliterated it. NASA’s machine made contact with an asteroid called Dimorphos.
According to the team, the plan was successful, and it would only take months to see if the result of pushing the asteroid off its path was successful.
Elena Adams, the systems engineer of the mission, said that the group who overlooked the event was filled with terror and joy when the craft finally slammed into Dimorphos.
The mission is part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) started by NASA 7 years ago. The $300 million program launched the spacecraft into orbit in November of last year in the hopes of completing a maneuver dictating humanity’s capacity for planetary defense against space objects bound for a collision with our planet.
Scientists said it would take two months before the team would see the results they hoped for.
Should the asteroid be blown off course, the mission is a success. However, if it takes the same path, then NASA must find another method.
“This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption. This isn’t going to blow up the asteroid,” said Nancy Chabot, the coordination lead of DART.
Changing the orbit of the asteroid
Dimorphos is 7 million miles away from the Earth and thus poses no threat to life whatsoever. The asteroid is about 525 feet across and what’s more interesting is that Dimorphos is orbiting another asteroid, albeit a larger one.
NASA added that DART would not cause a change enough for the chunks of rock to endanger life on Earth.
“There is no scenario in which one or the other body can become a threat to the Earth. It’s just not scientifically possible, just because of momentum conservation and other things,” said Thomas Zurbuchen from the NASA science mission directorate.
Instead, DART’s goal is to alter the time it takes for Dimorphos to make a complete orbit around the bigger asteroid. As per data, the smaller asteroid takes around 11 hours and 55 minutes to complete one revolution.
If the DART mission is successful, Dimorphos should now be making a full orbit every 11 hours and 45 minutes.
“The bottom line is, it’s a great thing. Someday, we are going to find an asteroid which has a high probability of hitting the Earth, and we are going to want to deflect it. When that happens, we should have, in advance, some experience knowing that this would work,” said Ed Lu, Asteroid Institute executive director.
More work to be done
DART scientists at NASA know the importance of their jobs and, as such, work harder to push the project even further.
“We’re moving an asteroid. We are changing the motion of a natural celestial body in space. Humanity has never done that before. This is stuff of science fiction books and really corny episodes of Star Trek from when I was a kid, and now it’s real. And that’s kind of astonishing that we are actually doing that, and what that bodes for the future of what we can do,” stated Tom Statler, a DART program scientist.
“It’s something that we need to get done so that we know what’s out there and know what’s coming and have adequate time to prepare for it,” added Lindley Johnson, Planetary Defense Officer at NASA.