Confirmed impact: a NASA spacecraft deliberately crashed into an asteroid on Monday with the aim of diverting its trajectory, during an unprecedented test mission which should allow humanity to learn how to protect themselves from a potential future threat.
The ship, smaller than a car, rushed at a speed of more than 20,000 km/h on its target, reached at the scheduled time (23:14 GMT). NASA teams, gathered at the Mission Control Center in Maryland, United States, exploded with joy at the moment of the collision.
A few minutes before, the asteroid Dimorphos, located about 11 million kilometers from Earth, has gradually grown on the spectacular images transmitted live by the spacecraft. We could clearly distinguish the pebbles on its gray surface, just before the images stop at the moment of the explosion.
“We are embarking on a new era, where we potentially have the ability to shield ourselves from a dangerous asteroid impact,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA.
Dimorphos is about 160 meters in diameter and poses no danger to our planet. It is actually the satellite of a larger asteroid, Didymos, which it has so far circumnavigated in 11 hours and 55 minutes. NASA is looking to reduce Dimorphos' orbit by 10 minutes, that is, to bring it closer to Didymos.
It will take a few days to a few weeks before scientists can confirm that the trajectory of the asteroid has indeed been altered. They will do this through telescopes on Earth, which will observe the variation in brightness as the small asteroid passes in front and behind the large one.
If the goal remains modest compared to the disaster scenarios of science fiction films like “Armageddon”, this “planetary defense” mission, named Dart (dart, in English), is the first to test such a technique. It allows NASA to train in case an asteroid threatens to hit Earth one day.
The ship had traveled for ten months since its takeoff, in California.
To reach a target as small as Dimorphos, the last phase of flight was fully automated, like for a self-guided missile.
Three minutes after impact, a shoebox-sized satellite, called LICIACube and released by the upstream craft, was expected to pass about 55 km from the asteroid to capture images of the ejecta.
The event was also to be observed by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, which should be able to detect a bright cloud of dust and thus help assess the amount of ejected material.
All this should make it possible to better understand the composition of Dimorphos, representative of a population of fairly common asteroids, and therefore to measure the exact effect that this technique – called kinetic impact – can have on them.
< p>The European Hera probe, which is due to take off in 2024, will also observe Dimorphos closely in 2026 to assess the consequences of the impact and calculate, for the first time, the mass of the asteroid.
Asteroids have held surprises for scientists in the past. In 2020, the American probe Osiris-Rex had sunk much more than expected into the surface of the asteroid Bennu. Likewise, the composition of Dimorphos is currently unknown.
“If the asteroid responds to Dart's impact in a totally unforeseen way, it could actually lead us to reconsider the extent to which kinetic impact is a generalizable technique,” Tom Statler, the mission's chief scientist, warned last week.
66 million years ago, the dinosaurs died out after the collision of an asteroid about 10 kilometers tall with the Earth.
Nearly 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been cataloged in the vicinity of the Earth (they are called near-Earth cruisers, that is to say that their orbit crosses that of our planet).
Today , none of these known asteroids threaten our planet for the next 100 years. Except that they have not yet all been identified.
Those of one kilometer or more have almost all been spotted, according to scientists. But they estimate they only know about 40% of asteroids 140 meters or larger — those capable of devastating an entire region.
“Our most important task is to find” the missing ones, Lindley said Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA. The earlier they are detected, the more time experts will have to put in place a means of defending against them.
The Dart mission is a crucial first step in this direction, according to Mr Johnson: “It's a very exciting time (…) for space history, and even the history of humanity.”