It's about us attacking the asteroid, not the other way round. No need to call on Bruce Willis this time!
NASA has given a name to the asteroid it plans to test its planetary defence on. The rock, the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, will be the target for NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which is scheduled for 2021. Don't you just love such cleverly constructed acronyms?
The mission involves deliberately crashing a spacecraft into the asteroid to change its motion in space. If it sounds like the 1998 asteroid disaster movie "Armageddon" starring Bruce Willis (and you were unlucky enough to waste a couple of hours on it), well, it is. Though, this time, NASA hopes it won't be a disaster and Bruce can watch the outcome from the comfort of his armchair.
The target asteroid was first discovered nearly two decades ago, with an accompanying moon. The larger of the giant space rocks was given the name “Didymos”, while the moon was called Didymos B.
“Upon discovery, asteroids get a temporary name until we know their orbits well enough to know they won't be lost. Once the Didymos system was identified as the ideal target for the DART mission, we needed to formally distinguish between the main body and the satellite,” said Andy Rivkin, a research astronomer and DART investigation co-lead at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.
So, now that they have considered matters further, and decided that Didymos would never sell cinema tickets, the moon will now be called Dimorphos. Way better! However, this huge solid lump is 'pretending' to head straight for our rather lovely planet, Earth.
“Dimorphos, which means ‘two forms,’ reflects the status of this object as the first celestial body to have the ‘form’ of its orbit significantly changed by humanity - in this case, by the DART impact,” said planetary scientist Kleomenis Tsiganis, who suggested the name, and has his fingers crossed.
“As such, it will be the first object to be known to humans by two, very different forms, the one seen by DART before impact and the other seen by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera, a few years later.”
“Hera” is the mission that will be undertaken by ESA a few years after impact, in order to assess DART’s effects, and decide whether or not to put itself forward as an oscar nominee.
Estimates place this asteroid's impact at between 100–1000 megatons. Asteroids like this rank at many multiples of the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. Imagine an entire metropolitan area like New York, Shanghai, or Tokyo removed from the face of the Earth. Luckily, events like these happen only about once every 4,000 years. Dire news. But, theoretically, it could happen at any time. The good news is that humanity (not Hollywood) now has a plan, and is going to try it out.
As you probably know, asteroids orbit the Sun at speeds of something like 30 kilometers per second (that's 67,000 miles per hour in English) and every now and then spin in to us. That's not going to happen with Dimorphos, it'll miss us by a vast distance; but the mission's objective is to see how much further it could nudge the giant rock off course.
The impact itself will be recorded by something called the CubeSat, which will be deployed from DART several days before the crash to film the, hopefully, box office smash hit from a safe distance. Longer-term effects will be studied by telescopes on Earth’s surface and in space, and future missions can make adjustments in technique, mass or velocity.
DART is the first mission developed by Nasa’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office to protect the Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids and comets - and rubbish B movies.
“Potentially hazardous asteroids are a global concern, and we are excited to be working with our Italian and European colleagues to collect the most accurate data possible from this kinetic impact deflection demonstration,” said Andrea Riley, DART Program Executive at NASA Headquarters.
NASA has selected Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch the mission, ensuring significant box office appeal from the get-go. The DART mission currently is slated to launch in June 2021 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. By using solar electric propulsion, DART will intercept the asteroid Didymos’ small moon in October 2022 after 14 months journey. At that time, the asteroid will be within 11 million kilometers of Earth providing a safe viewing distance.
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