NASA: This is the technology needed to deflect an asteroid

Photo from space with an asteroid close to Earth. (photo: National Geographic in Spanish)

The presence of near-Earth asteroids has forced the POT to start preparations for the so-called DART mission, or your anti-steroid system, with the goal of redirecting these rocky objects out of Earth’s orbit.

In October last year, it was known that an asteroid similar in size to the Pyramids of Giza, in addition to approaching other debris on our planet, forced the National Administration of the Agency that aeronautics and space had to put this system into service. It is not the first time that NASA has deployed a program of these characteristics, as it has done with the program called “Sutter Ultra”.

In the latter case, its main function is the early detection of asteroids that could impact the Earth, using the resources extracted from these rock fragments for industrial purposes. However, NASA is preparing for possible scenarios in which an asteroid could collide with our planet.

The launch of the DART mission

NASA’s idea is to launch a rocket Spacex Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on November 24, which will collide with the asteroid as it deviates from its original orbit. A rocket designed by the aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk.

As for the mission, the objective was the collision of the rocket with an asteroid called Didymos, which has a diameter of more than 700 meters. From NASA, they specify that the goal is to “shake the asteroid” to redirect its orbit, rather than destroy it.

Asteroid approaching Earth.  Computer artwork of an asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere.  (photo: SCIEPRO)
Asteroid approaching Earth. Computer artwork of an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere. (photo: SCIEPRO)

It will be 10 months of travel

The mission will begin its journey from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, early in the morning of Wednesday 24 (from approximately 1:20 am in Latin America).

From there, it will travel eleven million kilometers until it reaches the binary system of Didymos, formed by two asteroids: a main one and a secondary one, called Dimorphos, which orbits around the first. The latter, being like a kind of Moon, will be the target of the DART spacecraft, because it will collide with it but will not destroy it, only with the intention of diverting it from its orbit with a “small space push”.

“The collision will change the speed of the satellite in its orbit by a fraction of 1%, which will change its orbital period by several minutes, long enough to be observed and measured with telescopes on Earth.” explains NASA.

Vandenberg Space Force Base.  (photo: Ventos)
Vandenberg Space Force Base. (photo: Ventos)

Technology to deflect an asteroid

In 2007, NASA concluded in a report presented to the United States Congress that in the event that an asteroid headed toward Earth, the most effective way to deflect it would be to drop a nuclear bomb into space. The force of its detonation would destroy the asteroid, but the planet had to deal with possible nuclear effects. In fact, the use of nuclear weapons to mitigate the impacts of asteroids continues to be a controversial issue and much debated in the community of organizations responsible for the defense of the planet.

The second best option was to send a “Kinetic impactor”i.e. a spaceship, rocket or other projectile that, if pointed in the right direction and with the right speed, would collide with the asteroid, transferring a fraction of his momentum and pulling him out of his way back to Earth. “The basic principle of physics is like playing pool,” says Paek.

Sung Wook Paek.  (photo: THE ELEC)
Sung Wook Paek. (photo: THE ELEC)

However, for a kinetic impactor to be successful, Olivier de Weck, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and systems engineering, affirms that: “the properties of the asteroid, such as its mass, its momentum, its trajectory and the composition of its surface must be known as precisely as possible. This means that when designing a diversion mission, scientists and mission leaders must take uncertainty into account. “

Olivier de Weck.  (photo: MIT AeroAstro)
Olivier de Weck. (photo: MIT AeroAstro)

“Does it matter if the probability of success for a mission is 99.9% or only 90%? When it comes to deflecting a potential planet-killer, we bet so. ” Weck explains. “Therefore, we must be smarter when designing missions based on the level of uncertainty.”

Gravitational keyhole

Researchers have helped simulate several specific variables, such as the mass, momentum and orbit of the asteroid, as well as the degree of uncertainty within each of these variables.

Even more importart, took into account the distance between an asteroid and the gravity keyholeas well as how long scientists would have before the asteroid reached a point where gravity would inevitably pull towards the planet.

The keyhole is like opening a bathtub stopper, once opened the asteroid will move towards Earth like water towards a sink.

Asteroids in space.  (photo: Business Insider Spain)
Asteroids in space. (photo: Business Insider Spain)

So, three options were evaluated. The first is yes Dimorphos through a keyhole in five or more years, there would be enough time to send two explorers, one to measure the size of the asteroid and the other to push it out of orbit.

If the passage of the keyhole occurs over a period two to five years, it may be time to send in a rover to measure the asteroid and adjust the parameters of a larger projectile before sending the impact to deflect the asteroid.

If Apophis goes through the keyhole in one Earth year or less, Paek says it might be too late. “Even a main actor may not have reached the asteroid during this time,” concludes the scientist.


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