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NASA to Attack an Asteroid in Space to Prepare Against Future Collisions

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Sep 10, 2021

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Image Credit: NASA

NASA is planning an attack on an asteroid in space — to learn how to deflect future Earthbound asteroids, and protect humans from meeting the same fate as dinosaurs, who were wiped off the planet by asteroid strikes.

“The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, so when an asteroid headed toward Earth with their name on it 65 million years ago, they had no warning and no way to defend themselves. We know how that turned out… Humans are, understandably, keen to avoid the same fate,” an article on MIT Technology Review reads.

The asteroid scientists are planning to attack is Dimorphos, described as a stadium-size asteroid, orbiting a much larger asteroid called Didymos. At present, NASA is planning to launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) by November this year, or by latest by February 2022. It will take about a year to reach its target. “We’re doing this to have the ability to prevent a truly catastrophic natural disaster,” Tom Statler, a DART program scientist at NASA, said.

The DART spacecraft, described as “car-sized” will attack Dimorphos at 6.5 kilometers per second. Five years later, Hera, a European Space Agency mission will arrive at Dimorphos to check whether NASA’s mission worked.

However, the scientists aren’t sure what the result of this collision would look like — but the energy generated due to the impact is expected to be comparable to three tons of TNT (trinitrotoluene, a solid organic nitrogen compound used primarily as an explosive) exploding. The collision may also spew thousands of debris pieces spewing into space — resulting in an artificial meteor shower.


Related on The Swaddle:

A Car‑Sized Asteroid Flew By Earth at the Closest Ever Recorded Distances?


Dimorphos could start spinning wildly too — rotating along its long axis “like a rotisserie,” and in an extreme scenario, break the tidal lock it shares with the bigger asteroid it is revolving around, and start flipping “head-over-heels.”

Nonetheless, to be better prepared for the consequences, researchers have run some simulations to determine what the collision might result in, and published their findings in the journal Icarus. “It could start tumbling and enter a chaotic state,” said Harrison Agrusa from the University of Maryland, who led the research.

The “dramatic” spin that may be on the cards, according to experts, could it make it difficult for Hera’s smaller satellites to land on Dimorphos.

“Landing on such a small body is hard anyway… But [this] doesn’t make it easier,” Patrick Michel from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who is among the mission leads on Hera and a co-author on Icarus-report.

Will we manage to avoid the dinosaur’s fate? Only time can tell — unless we’re wiped off by climate change by then, although that’s allegedly what caused dinosaurs to start going extinct even before the infamous asteroid strike ended it for them. While we wait to learn our fate, at least, this Star-Wars-esque scenario has us intrigued.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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