Campaigns in this theme include 1958 The day the sky explodedof 1979 the meteorand of 1998 Armageddon. Fortunately, NASA scientists now feel confident about their ability to deflect a killer asteroid while saving the planet. But there’s a catch…
Researchers will need years of preparatory work to pull off such a feat. Here’s what you need to know about how humanity can dodge the next cosmic bullet.
A Brief History of Asteroids and Earth
Although humans have long been concerned about interplanetary collisions as a cause of death, studying and recognizing the potential threat did not become legitimate until the 1980s. That’s when researchers formally linked the extinction of the dinosaurs to a killer asteroid or comet. (For reference, a proper “planet-killing” rock measures at least 3,281 feet).
On the heels of these revelations, Australian-based engineer Michael Payne used a computer simulation to estimate how many dangerous asteroids have hit Earth in the past 10,000 years. The results were alarming. Payne’s model points to more than 350 asteroids of significant size and destructive power pockmarking Earth. How big was this space rock? 830 square miles of Siberian forest during the 1908 Tunguska eruption is comparable to the asteroid.
Tunguska uprooted 80 million trees, killed countless deer, and swept people off their feet hundreds of miles away. This resulted in broken windows and was compared to “a flash and bang” artillery fire. Fortunately, the asteroid touched down in a sparsely populated part of Russia, causing limited casualties. Still, the energy of the event turned heads.
Reflecting planet-killing projectiles
Today, scientists observe Asteroid Day on June 30m, anniversary of Tunguska. The day remains a sobering reminder that we may not be so lucky next time when it comes to the location of an asteroid impact. Does this mean it’s time to invest in an underground bunker designed to survive space rocks? According to NASA scientists, this approach may be overkill.
New scientific findings confirm us #DARTMissionAsteroid deflection technology can be an effective way to change the orbit of an asteroid, if there is ever a threat. The DART spacecraft intentionally hit asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022: https://t.co/PdpCDG2zRn pic.twitter.com/79EPIXCaSW
— NASA (@NASA) March 1, 2023
Instead, researchers are working to deflect a potential planet killer by crashing a spacecraft. And they recently used this technique to successfully deorbit a 525-foot-wide asteroid known as Dimorphos. A moon that orbits the larger asteroid Didymos, Dimorphos sits about seven million miles from the blue planet. In other words, dimorphos do not represent a threat to our existence. But because of its size and other characteristics, scientists have declared it an excellent target for testing space technology. The result? NASA’s project proved more successful than initially hoped.
The rocket that NASA says Dimorphos weighs 1,200 pounds and hit the asteroid on September 26, 2022. Called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the object crashed into Dimorphos at 13,000 miles per hour, exploding at more than 01 by 01 meters. Dust off the asteroid. This debris trail now extends for thousands of miles and has resulted in Dimorphos being reclassified as an “active asteroid” with a comet-like tail.
Dodging a cosmic bullet
Interestingly, the Hubble Telescope captured images of the dramatic effect, resulting in unprecedented images. As Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona explained, “We’ve never seen an object collide with an asteroid in a binary asteroid system before in real time, and … I think that’s great.” That said, there is one major caveat to all of this.
Intercepting and deflecting an asteroid the size of Dimorphos cannot happen in a day, a week, or even a month. It will take scientists several years, ideally decades, for this to happen. In other words, identifying Earthbound asteroids years before they become a threat is of grave concern. For context, about 3,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are discovered each year, adding to the current total of 28,000 NEAs.
This time-lapse from Hubble shows the rapid transition to dimorphosed asteroids after being intentionally hit by the 1,200-pound NASA DART spacecraft in September. This impact was an experiment to see if asteroids could be deflected away from Earth: https://t.co/AQMocA4LZH pic.twitter.com/dGImD0YA8f
— Hubble Space Telescope (@HubbleTelescope) March 1, 2023
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in SoCal hosts the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), which monitors these potentially hazardous objects. CNEOS plays an important role in protecting Earth from life-threatening asteroids through early detection. Combined with DART, humans stand a fighting chance against a space rock (unlike their dino predecessors). Jason Kalirai of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory credits Dart with offering “a bright future for planetary defense.”
Asteroid-nudging rockets paved the way for further research. Stay tuned for the 2024 launch of the Hera spacecraft, set to get a close-up look at Dimorphos’ post-dart speckled surface.
By Engrid Barnett, Contributor for Ripleys.com
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Source: NASA Reveals Blueprint For Deflecting Killer Asteroids