“Planetary defense”: a ship ready to crash into an asteroid to divert its trajectory

“Planetary Defense” crash into an asteroid to deviate its trajectory


The dinosaurs surely would have liked to think of it. Sci-fi movies, like Armageddon< strong> or more recently from Don't Look Up: Cosmic Denial, have been considering it for a long time.

This time, NASA will finally attempt what has never been done before: divert the trajectory of an asteroid by projecting a kamikaze ship on it. A “planetary defense” test, which should make it possible to better protect humanity against a possible future threat.

The Dart mission (dart, in English) took off in November from California. After ten months of travel, the ship is due to hit the asteroid Dimorphos at 7:14 p.m. Monday, at a speed of over 20,000 km/h.

The ship is no bigger than a car , and its target is about 160 meters in diameter (half the height of the Eiffel Tower).

Do not panic, Dimorphos does not represent a threat to the Earth in any way: its orbit around the Sun passes only seven million kilometers from us at its closest. 

But the mission “is important to achieve before we discover a real need, “said Andrea Riley, in charge of the mission at NASA.

The moment of impact promises to be spectacular and can be followed live on the video channel of the American agency. 

It is not a question of destroying the asteroid, but of pushing it slightly. The technique is called kinetic impact.

Dimorphos is actually the satellite of a larger asteroid, Didymos (780 meters in diameter), which it circles in 11 hours and 55 minutes. The goal is to reduce the orbit of Dimorphos around Didymos by about ten minutes.

This change can be measured by telescopes from Earth, by observing the variation in brightness as the small asteroid passes in front of the large one.

The objective may seem modest, but this demonstration is crucial for the future.

The aim is to better understand how Dimorphos, representative of a population of fairly common asteroids, whose exact composition is not known, will react. The effect of the impact will largely depend on its porosity, i.e. whether it is more or less compact.

One frame per second < /p>

To hit such a small target, the ship will steer autonomously for the last four hours, like a self-guided missile.

Its camera, called Draco, will take at the last moment the very first images of the asteroid, whose shape we do not yet know (round, oblong, etc.). At a rate of one image per second, visible in direct to Earth with a delay of only about 45 seconds.

“It will start with a small point of light, until it fills the whole frame,” said Nancy Chabot, of the Applied Physics Laboratory ( APL) at Johns Hopkins University, where the control center is located.

“These images will keep coming, until they don't,” she added, referring to the moment of the explosion.

Three minutes later, a satellite the size of a shoebox, called LICIACube and released by the spacecraft a few days ago, will pass about 55 km from the asteroid to capture images of the ejecta. They will be sent back to Earth in the following weeks and months.

The event will also be observed by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, which should be able to detect a bright cloud of dust.

Then the European probe Hera, which is due to take off in 2024, will go to closely observe Dimorphos in 2026 to assess the consequences of the impact and calculate, for the first time, the mass of the asteroid.

Find them all

Very few of the known asteroids are considered potentially dangerous, and none are over the next 100 years.

But “I guarantee that if you wait long enough, there will be an object,” said NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.

Nearly 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been cataloged in the surroundings of the Earth (they are called near-Earth objects, that is to say that their orbit crosses that of our planet). About 3,000 new ones are found every year.

Those a mile or more have nearly all been spotted, scientists say. But they estimate they only know about 40% of asteroids 140 meters or larger — those capable of devastating an entire region.

If Dart misses its target, the ship should have enough fuel for a another attempt in two years.

And if the mission succeeds, it will be a first step towards a real defense capability, according to Nancy Chabot. “Earth has been hit by asteroids for billions of years, and it will happen again. As humans, let's make sure we live in a civilization where we can avoid it. »