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


It’s a Hollywood-worthy scenario, yet very real. NASA launched an unprecedented mission on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, November 24. By projecting a vessel at 24,000 km / h against an asteroid, she hopes to change its trajectory and thus help humanity protect itself from a potential collision in the future.

A missile probe to deflect an asteroid: now it’s no longer cinema

The US space agency’s mission, dubbed DART (dart, in English), took off Wednesday from the Vandenberg base in California, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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> Relive this historic launch:

“Asteroid Dimorphos, we are coming to get you”, nasa tweeted after launch.

“Historical” test

This is “Will be historic”, said Tom Statler, a NASA scientist participating in this mission, at a press conference. “For the first time, humanity will change the movement of a natural celestial body in space. “

This is only a dress rehearsal, the target asteroid does not represent a threat to Earth. But the goal is taken very seriously by the US space agency.

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It currently lists just over 27,500 asteroids of all sizes close to Earth and “None of them represent a threat in the next hundred years”, reassured Thomas Zurbuchen, director for scientific missions at NASA.

But experts estimate that they are only aware of 40% of asteroids measuring 140 meters and more – those capable of devastating an entire region – with the majority yet to be discovered. The idea is therefore to develop a technique to protect against it in the event of a future threat.

Impact in 10 months

The mission ship is smaller than a car, flanked by two long solar panels. It is due to strike next fall, 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 in fact a moon, orbiting a larger asteroid, named him Didymos (780 meters in diameter).

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

“It’s a very small change but it might be all we need to deflect an asteroid having a collision course with Earth, if we ever have to, provided we discover this asteroid soon enough.”, explained Tom Statler.

The exact effect that the impact will have 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 then be measured using telescopes from Earth, that scientists want to determine. The results will be used in calculations to help define, in the future, how much mass must be projected against a given type of asteroid to cause sufficient deflection.

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A $ 330 million test

Is Dimorphos made of solid or more porous rocks? Scientists do not know, and the asteroid will not appear in images transmitted by the ship until just an hour before the collision. Its shape, round or oblong, will only be clear 2 minutes before. Then the explosion, and radio silence.

The following images will come from a small satellite developed by the Italian Space Agency. It will be released by the main ship ten days before impact.

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

The orbit of the large asteroid Didymos around the Sun could also be slightly modified, due to the gravitational relationship with its moon. But so little that the change cannot be measured. No chance therefore that the asteroid is placed on a new potentially dangerous path 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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