A NASA-built spacecraft is set to intentionally crash into a small asteroid as part of a mission to test planetary protection.
While this asteroid – named Dimorphos – poses no threat to Earth, the purpose of the mission is to demonstrate that dangerous incoming rocks can be deflected by deliberately hitting them.
The spacecraft, known as the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (Dart), is expected to collide with the 170-metre-wide (560-foot) asteroid at 00:14 UK time on September 27.
Dimorphos is part of a binary asteroid system and orbits Didymos, which takes about 11 hours and 55 minutes.
But NASA astronomers hope that Dart, as it self-destructs in the process, will shorten that orbital period by about 10 minutes.
NASA said: “Dart’s target asteroid is not a threat to Earth, but it is the perfect testing ground to see if this method of asteroid deflection – known as the kinetic impact technique – would be a viable way to protect the planet if an asteroid is in a collision. course with Earth were discovered in the future.
Currently, somewhere around 27,000 asteroids are in near-Earth orbit.
Rocks that are 140 meters (460 ft) and larger in size and come within less than 4.7 million miles (7.5 million km) during orbit are classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).
The Dart mission will be the first large-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology.
The spacecraft recently captured the first images of Didymos and Dimorphos using an onboard instrument known as the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (Draco).
It was about 20 million miles (32 million km) away from the asteroid system when it took the photos in July.
It took 10 months for Dart to approach Dimorphous after it was launched last November on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
The asteroids will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth when the collision occurs.
Dart will accelerate to about 15,000 miles per hour (24,140 kilometers per hour) before colliding with Dimorphos.
This collision will be recorded by a briefcase-sized satellite known as the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), which was provided by the Italian Space Agency.
LICIACube, which weighs only 14 kg (31 lbs), took a Dart ride in deep space before recently parting ways with the spacecraft in a final farewell.
In 2024, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its Hera spacecraft, which will set off on a two-year journey to the asteroid system to gather information from the crash.
ESA said: “By the time Hera reaches Didymos in 2026, Dimorphos will have achieved historic significance: the first object in the Solar System to have its orbit changed by human effort in a measurable way.”
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Source : metro.co.uk