the incredible images of the impact of an asteroid

NASA/EyePress/Reuters In November 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off from California with NASA’s Dart mission probe on board, which almost a year ago hit an asteroid located eleven million kilometers from Earth.

NASA/EyePress/Reuters

In November 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off from California with NASA’s Dart mission probe on board, which almost a year ago hit an asteroid located eleven million kilometers from Earth.

SPACE – This is the first for Mankind, and it is worthy of “Armageddon” and Hollywood. On the night of Monday September 26 to Tuesday September 27, NASA’s Dart mission probe was able to hit an asteroid eleven million kilometers from planet Earth. A test that aims to deviate from the path of the celestial body and learn how to protect yourself from a possible future threat.

The ship, which is smaller than a car, accelerated at a speed of more than 20,000 kilometers per hour to its target, arriving at the appointed time (1:14 am in France, 7:14 pm on the east coast of the United States). United). NASA teams, assembled at Mission Control in Maryland, erupted in joy when the crash occurred, as you can see in the video below.

A few minutes before, the asteroid Dimorphos, located about 11 million kilometers from Earth, gradually grew in spectacular images broadcast live by the ship. We can clearly distinguish the pebbles on its gray surface, before the images stop at the moment of the explosion.

We are starting a new era, where we have the possibility to protect ourselves from the dangerous impact of the asteroid said Lori Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA.

A telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town also captured the moment, as you can see below.

“LEarthlings can now sleep soundly »

Dimorphos is about 160 meters in diameter and poses no danger to our planet. It is actually a satellite of a larger asteroid, Didymos, that it is far circumnavigated in 11 hours and 55 minutes. NASA intends to reduce the orbit of Dimorphos by 10 minutes, that is, bring it closer to Didymos, or in other words to change its trajectory thanks to the power of the impact.

We will have to wait between a few days and a few weeks before scientists can confirm that this asteroid’s path has changed. They will do this thanks to telescopes on Earth, which will observe the difference in light as the small asteroid passes in front of and behind the large one.

If the goal remains modest compared to the disaster scenarios of science fiction films like “Armageddon”, this mission of ” defense of the planet “, named Dart (” darts », in English), was the first to try such a technique. This allows NASA to train in case an asteroid threatens to hit Earth one day. “I think the Earthlings can sleep well, I”launched Elena Adams, a mission engineer.

The ship has been traveling for ten months since it set sail in California. To hit a target as small as Dimorphos, the final flight phase is fully automatic, like a self-guided missile.

Observations to come in the coming days and years

Three minutes after impact, a satellite the size of a shoebox, called LICIACube and released by the spacecraft upriver, is expected to pass about 55 kilometers from the asteroid to take images of the ejecta. The event should also be observed by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, which should detect a bright cloud of dust and thus help evaluate the amount of material ejected.

All of this should make it possible to better understand the composition of Dimorphos, representative of a population of relatively common asteroids, and therefore to measure the exact effect that this technique, called the kinetic effect, can have on them .

The European Hera probe, which will fly in 2024, will also closely observe Dimorphos in 2026 to assess the consequences of the impact and calculate, for the first time, the mass of the asteroid.

Asteroids have held surprises for scientists in the past. In 2020, the American probe Osiris-Rex sank further than expected on the surface of the asteroid Bennu. Likewise, the composition of Dimorphos is currently unknown.

No imminent threat, but unknown

If the asteroid responds to the Dart impact in an unexpected way, it may lead us to reconsider whether the kinetic impact is a generalizable technique. “, warned last week Tom Statler, chief scientist of the mission.

66 million years ago, the dinosaurs disappeared after the collision of an asteroid about 10 kilometers wide with the Earth. Since then, about 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been recorded around the Earth (they are called near-Earth objects, that is, their orbit crosses our planet). But if none of these known asteroids threaten our planet in the next 100 years, not all of them will be identified.

Those of a kilometer or more were almost all found, according to scientists. But they estimate that only 40% of the asteroids they know measure 140 meters or more, and they are capable of destroying entire regions.

Our most important task is searching those lost, said NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson. The earlier they are detected, the more time experts have to put in place a way to protect themselves against them. The Dart mission is an important first step in this direction, according to the researcher: ” It’s a very exciting time (…) for the history of space, and even the history of humanity. »

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