NASA is about to blast a spacecraft into an asteroid, obliterating the probe and pushing the space rock.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) focuses on an asteroid called Dimorphos, orbiting a giant asteroid called Didymos. By crashing into it, NASA hopes to push the smaller space rock into a new orbit closer to its parent asteroid. The impact, scheduled for Monday, is an exercise to divert dangerous asteroids away from our planet.
Dimorphos is 163 meters (535 feet) wide – big enough to obliterate a city like New York. That’s not a cause for concern, as it’s not on an Earth-bound trajectory and DART won’t change its path through the solar system. But that makes it perfect exercise for one of the biggest threats in our cosmic neighborhood: asteroids killing the city, clocking in at 140 meters (460 feet) or greater.
However, having a proven method of deflection won’t help protect Earth from asteroids if no one sees them coming. Experts previously told Insider that it would take NASA five to 10 years to build and launch a modified mission to fend off an incoming asteroid. To date, scientists have identified only 40% of city-killing asteroids orbiting near Earth, NASA estimates. No one knows where the rest are, or where they’re going.
“Of course you can’t use mitigation techniques unless you know where the asteroids are,” Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, told Insider via email.
In 2005, Congress ordered NASA to catalog 90% of those 140-foot-long asteroids. Mainzer has been working on a space telescope called the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, which is designed to achieve that goal.
NEO Surveyor has been making slow progress in the development process of NASA’s mission, but it has recently received a budget injection to propel it to launch.
“The clock is ticking,” Mainzer previously told Insider. “We really want to get off the ground as soon as possible.”
Smaller asteroids are already sneaking up on us
Asteroids have surprised people a few times in recent years.
In 2013, a house-sized asteroid screamed into the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and exploded. The explosion caused a shock wave that broke windows, damaged buildings and injured more than 1,400 people. No one on earth saw it coming. That same day, a larger asteroid came within 17,000 miles of the planet.
Jim Bridenstine, who was the Trump administration’s NASA administrator, said in 2019 that the agency’s modeling suggested an event like the Chelyabinsk meteor occurs about every 60 years.
But the Chelyabinsk rock was small – about 50 feet wide. In 2019, a 427-foot, “city-killer” space rock flew within 45,000 miles of Earth, and NASA had almost no warning about that either.
Then, in 2020, a car-sized asteroid passed closer to Earth than any known space rock had ever come without crashing. It missed our planet by about 1,830 miles. Astronomers didn’t know the asteroid existed until about six hours after it whizzed by. No one saw it coming, for it was approaching from the direction of the sun.
Ground-based telescopes can only observe the sky at night, which means they miss almost anything flying at us from the sun. NEO Surveyor could see such space rocks from its position in Earth’s orbit. Because it would use infrared light, it could also see asteroids that are too dark for telescopes on Earth.
The asteroid spy telescope received a huge budget boost in 2022
Mainzer first submitted the idea for a space telescope for hunting asteroids in 2006. NASA declined to take it on as a mission and instead funded other projects. She also submitted proposals in 2010 and 2015, but the agency kept passing.
NEO Surveyor finally became an official NASA mission in 2019. Then the project languished in what NASA calls “Phase A” – a phase that focuses on design and technology development. Last year, NEO Surveyor passed a major assessment and advanced to Phase B, which allowed Mainzer and her team to begin building prototypes and developing hardware and software.
Then Congress and President Joe Biden approved a $143.2 million budget for the telescope in 2022. That’s a significant increase from the $28 million the mission received in 2021. NASA aims to launch the mission in the mid-2020s.
Once in orbit, NEO Surveyor is expected to spend 10 years ramping up NASA’s catalog from 40% of city-killing asteroids to 90%. After that, researchers can move on to smaller classes of asteroids, like the one that shook Chelyabinsk.
If the DART impact goes according to plan Monday, NASA will be better equipped to redirect any Earth-bound asteroid NEO Surveyor might discover.
Read the original article on Business Insider