NASA, in a joint operation with the ESA (European Space Agency), are planning something you might normally consider seeing only in movies like Armageddon. They’re about to test a brand new planetary defense system in a first step called the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART).
Essentially what this test will determine is if we can indeed redirect an asteroid that’s hurtling through space towards Earth. Not just any old asteroid, but one that’s on a trajectory to enter the atmosphere and big enough to hit the planet with enough force to destroy large regions of it.
In a nutshell, they’re going to use a probe to crash into Didymoon, a “moon” that orbits an asteroid named Didymos, in an attempt to alter its course. NASA and the ESA believe there isn’t a danger to Earth in doing currently, as the asteroid and its moon will pass some seven million miles “next to” the Earth. According to the ESA, Didymoon is about the size of the Great Pyramid of Gaza. If an asteroid the size of Didymoon were to hit the Earth, it could take out a large region, or even an entire continent, almost guaranteeing an extinction level event.
Although this is the smallest asteroid that a probe will actually land on, the test is being hailed as a huge first step towards actually protecting the planet in the event Armageddon actually happens. As the ESA’s Michael Kuppers, a scientist working on the agency’s Hera project, said:
“We will better understand whether this technique can be used for even larger asteroids, giving us certainty we cold protect our home planet if needed.”
According to Ian Carnelli, the head of the Hera project, both the Hera project and DART are part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).
Of the joint experiment, Carnelli said:
“Our Hera and DART mission teams are fully functional and coordinating this joint experiment. An AIDA workshop is planned in September 2019 in Rome. The original ESA part of the mission, called AIM, did not receive full funding. ESA has therefore re-worked the mission (now called Hera) and optimized for reaching Didymos after FART impact, to complete the experiment by 2026.”
What does Carnelli mean by “to complete the experiment by 2026,”? Essentially, when the probe crashes into Didymoon, they expect it to change the trajectory of the moon. But they also know the crash will leave a huge impact crater in it, too. After the crash, DART plans to send another probe to land on the Didymoon so it can measure the impact crater’s size, as well as the effectiveness of the crash itself in changing the trajectory.
Using this information, scientists will be able to determine if future probes might be able to knock bigger and more destructive asteroids off their paths if ever needed.
Considering one huge scare we had in 2012 and 2013 of the asteroid known as Apophis and the possibility that it was going to smash into our planet in the year 2036, it’s a really good idea to have an ace in our back pocket. Researchers initially calculated that the Earth was directly in Apophis’ way, but in 2013, they ruled out a direct hit – though it will come damn close.
The history of the DART program goes back at least a few decades when scientists finally realized that many more of the cosmic debris hit the Earth each year and will continue to do so. Although the DART project was conceived much earlier than 2013, the near Apophis incident surely gave way to much more serious talks about how to protect our planet from sure destruction. As a result, DART is expected to launch in 2021, and reaching Didymoon in 2022.
If the probe reaches the moon as planned, then Hera launches, with the goal of studying the results.
DART is a project the ESA successfully pulled off previously in 2005. The ESA launched a probe called Deep Impact at the Tempel comet, and it hit it successfully. Although they snapped a picture of it 67 seconds after impact, they weren’t (as far as we know) able to measure whether the trajectory was changed.
Although its pure speculation, and NASA and the ESA have surely thought of every possibility, a question has to be asked. What if the DART mission succeeds, and the probe hits the Didymoon as expected, but instead of being knocked further away from the Earth, it’s knocked closer?
We can only hope to get a public answer soon.
Check out NASA’s recreation of how the probe will hit the Didymoon:
Featured Image: via Great Lakes Ledger