NASA’s DART mission to deflect an asteroid took off aboard a SpaceX rocket

It’s a setting worthy of Hollywood, but very real. NASA took off, on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, November 24, an unprecedented mission. By launching a spacecraft at 24,000 km/h against an asteroid, she hopes to change its trajectory and thus help humanity to protect itself, in the future, from a possible collision.

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The American space agency’s mission, dubbed DART, took off on Wednesday from the Vandenberg base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The sequel after the announcement

> Relive this historic release:

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“Asteroid Dimorphos, we’re coming to get you”, NASA tweeted after launch.

“History” Test

That’s it “will be historic”Tom Statler, a NASA scientist participating in this mission, told a news conference. “For the first time, humanity will change the motion of a natural celestial body in space. »

This is just a dress rehearsal, the asteroid in question does not pose a threat to Earth in any way. But the goal is taken very seriously by the American space agency.

The sequel after the announcement

It currently lists just over 27,500 near-Earth asteroids of all sizes and “none of them will pose a threat for the next hundred years”assured Thomas Zurbuchen, director of science missions at NASA.

But experts estimate that they only know about 40% of asteroids measuring 140 meters or more – those capable of laying waste to an entire region – with the majority yet to be discovered. The idea is therefore to develop a technique to protect you in the event of a future threat.

Impact in ten months

The mission ship is smaller than a car, flanked by two long solar panels. It should hit next autumn, in about ten months, an asteroid the size of a football field (about 160 meters in diameter), which will then be located eleven million kilometers from Earth.

The asteroid is called Dimorphos and is actually a moon, orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos (780 meters in diameter).

The sequel after the announcement

To circumnavigate the large asteroid, Dimorphos currently takes 11 hours and 55 minutes. Scientists hope to reduce its orbit by about 10 minutes.

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“It’s a very small change, but it could be all we need to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, if need be, as long as we find that asteroid soon.”explained Tom Statler.

The exact effect of the impact is not known at the moment because it depends in particular on the composition of the asteroid.

It is this precise change in trajectory, which will be measured using Earth-based telescopes, that the scientists want to determine. The results will be used for calculations to help define, in the future, what mass should be hurled at a given type of asteroid to cause sufficient deflection.

The sequel after the announcement

A $330 million test

Is Dimorphos made of solid rocks or more porous? Scientists don’t know, and the asteroid will only appear in images transmitted by the spacecraft an hour before the collision. Its shape, round or oblong, will only become clear 2 minutes beforehand. Then the explosion and the radio silence.

The following images will come from a small satellite developed by the Italian space agency. It will be launched by the main ship ten days before impact.

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Three minutes after the collision, it will fly over Dimorphos, to observe the effect of the shock and, with any luck, the crater on the surface.

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The orbit of the large asteroid Didymos around the Sun may also be slightly modified, due to the gravitational relationship with its moon. But so little that change cannot be measured. Therefore, there is no chance that the asteroid will be placed on a new, potentially dangerous trajectory for the blue planet.

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The total cost of the mission – the first interplanetary launched by Elon Musk’s company for NASA – is $330 million.

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