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NASA hits asteroids to divert it from its course – a first for humanity


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The kamikaze craft, slightly smaller than a car, fell at a speed exceeding 20,000 kilometers per hour onto the asteroid at the predicted time (at 02:14 Greek time).

Impact confirmed: NASA spacecraft deliberately crashed into asteroids to alter course with kinetic energy, during unprecedented mission to teach humanity how to protect itself from potential future existential threat to her.

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The kamikaze craft, slightly smaller than a car, fell at a speed exceeding 20,000 kilometers per hour onto the asteroid at the predicted time (at 02:14 Greek time). NASA teams at the mission control center in Maryland erupted in cheers at the time of impact.

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A few minutes earlier, the asteroid Dimorphos, about 11 million kilometers from Earth, was beginning to grow slowly in the spectacular images transmitted directly from the spacecraft’s camera. The gray irregular surface of the rock was clearly visible.

“We are entering a new era in which we potentially have the ability to protect ourselves from collisions with hazardous asteroids,” summarized Lori Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA.

Dimorphos has a diameter of 160 meters and does not pose any danger to planet Earth. It is a satellite of a larger asteroid, Gemini, and has so far made a complete revolution around it in 11 hours and 55 minutes. NASA wants to reduce the orbit by 10 minutes, in other words bring it closer to Gemini.

It will take days to weeks before scientists can confirm that the asteroid’s orbit actually changed. They will do this thanks to telescopes on Earth, which will observe the variation of the orbit of the smaller asteroid around the larger one after the impact.

Although the goal is much less spectacular compared to the scenarios of science fiction films such as the Armageddon film, this “planetary defense” exercise, dubbed DART (“dart”, in English, an acronym for the term Double Asteroid Redirection Test) marks the first test of this technique. It allows NASA to rehearse in case an asteroid one day threatens to collide with Earth.

The craft traveled for about ten months after launching from California. To hit a target as small as Dimorphus, the last phase of its flight was completely automated, as if it were a self-guided missile.

Three minutes after impact, a small, shoebox-sized satellite called LICIACube, launched by the spacecraft before impact, was to pass within 55 kilometers of the asteroid to collect images.

The mission was also to be monitored by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, which were to locate the dust cloud so that the amount of ejected matter could be calculated.

It will also allow a better understanding of the composition of Dimorph, which is representative of frequently occurring asteroids, thus assessing the effectiveness of the method.

The European Hera spacecraft, due to launch in 2024, will take a closer look at Dimorphos in 2026 to assess the effects of the impact and measure, for the first time, the asteroid’s mass.

Asteroids have held surprises for scientists in the past. In 2020, the US Osiris-Rex probe penetrated deeper than expected into the surface of the asteroid Bennu. The exact composition of Dimorphos is not known so far.

“If the asteroid reacts to DART’s impact in a completely unpredictable way, this may lead us to reconsider whether kinetic impact is a technique that can have general application,” said Tom Statler, the mission’s scientific chief.

66 million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out due to the collision of a 10 km-sized asteroid with the Earth.

Nearly 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been cataloged (relatively) near Earth. Today, none of the known asteroids threaten our planet, at least for the next 100 years. Unless it hasn’t been registered yet.

Those that are a kilometer in size have now practically all been recorded, scientists say. But they add that only 40% of asteroids larger than 140 meters, which can cause destruction over large areas, are recorded.

“Our most important task is to find” those that have not been detected, said Lindley Johnson, a planetary defense specialist at NASA. The sooner they are found, the more time the experts have to draw up a defense plan.

The DART experiment is the first, critical step in this direction, explains Mr Johnson. “It’s a period of great excitement (…) for space history and even for human history.”


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