A NASA experiment carried out six months ago may just have saved mankind.
In September 2022, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) fired a fridge-sized spacecraft at Dimorphos, part of a two-asteroid system. The experiment was designed to test whether a potentially hazardous asteroid could be diverted away from the Earth.
Now the NASA researchers have published the results of the experiment in scientific journal Nature – and it’s good news.
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The NASA team has confirmed for the first time in the history of this planet that it has learned how to defend humans from an asteroid impact – meaning mankind could be saved from the threat that ended the reign of the dinosaurs.
The scientists say the DART impactor – which used a 1,100lb of force to hit the asteroid, releasing energy equivalent to about three tonnes of TNT – shaved just more than half an hour off the time it takes the small asteroid Dimorphos to orbit its larger companion Didymos.
Before the impact, the team hoped to shorten the orbit time by about seven minutes. But asteroids are complex bodies, and how densely-packed they are is hard to predict.
Cristina Thomas, a planetary scientist at Northern Arizona University, told Motherboard: “People may think of the DART mission as a fairly straightforward experiment that is similar to playing billiards in space—one solid spacecraft impacts into one solid asteroid.
“However, asteroids are far more complex than just a solid rock; in fact most asteroids are what we think of as rubble piles. If you hit a rubble pile with a spacecraft, a lot of material will be ejected and fly away.”
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It was the reaction from material being ejected after the collision that led to the dramatic change.
While the team’s initial seven-minute calculation was based on an impact on a completely solid asteroid, Dimorphos turned out to be more loosely-packed.
“We calculated a period change of 33 minutes,” Dr Thomas added, “which is much larger and shows how important that extra moment from the ejected material was to the orbit period change.”
So, while the Solar System is still packed with potentially planet-killing asteroids, humanity finally has some chance of fighting back.
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