NASA’s doomsday Asteroid plan taking shape.

NASA’s doomsday Asteroid plan taking shape.

Bruce Willis might have saved the world by blowing up a nuclear device on an asteroid in the film Armageddon. In the movie, Bruce Willis heroically sacrifices his life, breaking the killer Asteroid in two.

Bruce Willis might have saved the world by blowing up a nuclear device on an asteroid in the film Armageddon. In the movie, Bruce Willis heroically sacrifices his life, breaking the killer Asteroid in two. But this time, NASA isn’t calling on Bruce Willis’s character Harry Stamper to save the world. NASA called Aerojet Rocketdyne and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

NASA has a plan, not to blow up an asteroid, but redirect one. The mission: The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) led by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division. NASA also enrolled the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) with support from several NASA centers:

  • 1. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
  • 2. Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)
  • 3. Johnson Space Center (JSC)
  • 4. Glenn Research Center (GRC)
  • 5. Langley Research Center (LRC).

Finding a target asteroid:

Many factors play in the ease of asteroid detection. The Albedo of the asteroid relates to the amount of light reflectivity. Think about Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. Astronomers complain about the high reflectivity of these satellites ruining the night sky. Unlike Starlink, the Albedo of most asteroids pales in comparison. This makes asteroids more difficult to spot. Astronomers leverage more than just visible light to detect and track asteroids.

Size matters for the detection of asteroids. Larger asteroids absorb more light and potentially reflect more light. Sometimes that release of absorbed light ends up in a different wavelength than the original, but still detectable. Many times this light is emitted as infrared light.

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An artist’s concept of NASA’s WISE/NEOWISE spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec

NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft mission ended in 2011 after completing an infrared-wavelength astronomical survey between December 2009 to February 2011. The space telescope ran out of cooling fluids to operate certain instruments. NASA repurposed this satellite In September 2013 and assigned the spacecraft a new mission as NEOWISE to help find near-Earth asteroids and comets.

Along with NEOWISE, Earth-based observation telescopes and some other missions continue to scan and monitor the space around Earth for Near-Earth Objects. Earth-based telescope’s ability to spot larger asteroids makes larger asteroids make them ideal for tracking. A downside of the larger asteroids is the increased mass. More mass makes these asteroids harder to deflect.

NASA and JAXA sent spacecraft to visit certain asteroids over the last twenty years. As a result, our knowledge of asteroids increased greatly. Is there a cause for concern? Yes.

The DART spacecraft mission:

DART represents a first of a kind planetary defense-driven test to prove technologies for preventing an impact of Earth by a hazardous asteroid. The DART demonstration includes a kinetic impactor technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. If successful, DART intends on redirecting an asteroid to a different orbit.

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Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid (65803) Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar would, in turn, measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit about the parent body.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

The spacecraft shall deliberately strike an asteroid at high velocity to change the asteroid’s orbit. Which unsuspecting asteroid did NASA choose? The binary asteroid Didymos(65803) includes Didymos A and a smaller asteroid orbiting it called Didymos B. Didymos primary body measures approximately 780 meters across. The secondary body (or “moonlet”) about 160-meters in size.

At 780 meters, the 2000 Report Of The Task Force On Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Objects estimated Didymos A would produce Tsunamis reaching hemispheric scales of a water impact. In the event of a land impact, absolute destruction of 100,000 km² area. For reference, think the country of South Korea or the state of Virginia wiped out of existence leaving a 12 km wide crater. Also, scientists predict the impact of 10,000–100,000 mega tonnes like this once every 63,000 years (or so). If on an intercept course with Earth, Didymos-A sized asteroids pose a threat. How does that compare to a nuclear bomb?

space disaster-response technology science nasa data science

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