NASA is about to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid, obliterating the probe and pushing the space rock.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) targets an asteroid called Dimorphos, which is orbiting a massive asteroid called Didymos. By crashing it, NASA hopes to nudge the smaller space rock into a new orbit closer to its parent asteroid. The impact, scheduled for Monday, is a practice for deflecting dangerous asteroids away from our planet.
Dimorphos is 163 meters (535 feet) wide — big enough to obliterate a city like New York. This is not a cause for concern as it is not in Earth-bound orbit and DART will not change its course through the solar system. But that makes it perfect practice for one of the biggest threats in our cosmic neighborhood: city-killer asteroids, which reach 140 meters (460 feet) or longer.
However, having a tried and true deflection method won’t help protect Earth from asteroids if no one sees them coming. Experts previously told Insider that it would take NASA five to 10 years to build and launch a custom mission to deflect an incoming asteroid. To date, scientists have identified only 40% of city-killer asteroids orbiting near Earth, NASA estimates. No one knows where the rest are or where they are going.
“Of course, you can’t use any mitigation technique if you don’t know where the asteroids are,” Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, told Insider.
In 2005, Congress mandated NASA to record 90% of these 140-meter-plus asteroids. Mainzer is working on a space telescope called the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, which is designed to accomplish this goal.
“This is one of the great threats to life on our planet,” Mainzer said. “It’s something we just have to cross off our list of concerns. And the way we do that, is to look for asteroids, in my opinion.”
NEO Surveyor has made slow progress, however, and another major hit was needed.
In early 2022, the mission received an infusion of $143.2 million to propel it toward launch. But NASA has since pulled $33 million from that budget for this year, according to Mainzer, and cut the project’s budget by $100 million for 2023. NASA estimates it will delay the telescope by at least two years, so it will begin in 2028 at the earliest.
“We’re obviously disappointed about the budget cuts, because we know it creates a less efficient project. It’s going to cost more and take longer,” Mainzer said.
Smaller asteroids are already swarming us
Asteroids have already surprised humans a few times in recent years.
In 2013, a house-sized asteroid screamed across the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia, and exploded. The explosion caused a shock wave that shattered windows, damaged buildings and injured more than 1,400 people. No one on Earth saw this coming. That same day, a larger asteroid came within 17,000 miles of the planet.
Jim Bridenstine, who served as the Trump administration’s NASA administrator, said in 2019 that the agency’s modeling suggested that an event like the Chelyabinsk meteor occurs about every 60 years.
But the Chelyabinsk rock was small – about 50 feet wide. In 2019, a 427-foot-long, “city-killer” space rock flew within 45,000 miles of Earth, and NASA had almost no warning about it.
Then, in 2020, an asteroid the size of a car passed closer to Earth than any known space rock had ever come without crashing. It missed our planet by about 1,830 miles. Astronomers didn’t know about the asteroid until six hours after it passed. No one saw it coming, because it was approaching from the direction of the sun.
Ground-based telescopes can only observe the sky at night, which means they miss almost everything thrown at us by the sun. The NEO Surveyor, from its perch in Earth orbit, could detect such space rocks. Since it would use infrared light, it could also detect asteroids that are too dark for Earth-based telescopes.
The Asteroid Spy Telescope suffers further delays
Mainzer first submitted the idea for an asteroid-hunting space telescope in 2006. NASA declined to take it on as a mission, funding other projects. He submitted proposals in both 2010 and 2015, but the agency kept passing.
NEO Surveyor finally became an official NASA mission in 2019. The project then remained in what NASA calls “Phase A” — a stage focused on design and technology development. Last year, NEO Surveyor passed a major overhaul and moved into Phase B, allowing Mainzer and her team to begin prototyping and hardware and software development.
Congress and President Joe Biden then approved a budget of $143.2 million for the telescope in 2022 (later reduced to $110 million). That’s a significant increase from the $28 million the mission received in 2021 and has allowed the team to make “significant” progress on all elements of the telescope’s design, Mainzer said. But the agency’s 2023 budget proposal allocates just $40 million to the project.
Once in orbit, the NEO Surveyor is expected to spend 10 years boosting NASA’s inventory from 40% of city-killing asteroids to 90%. After that, researchers can move on to smaller classes of asteroids, like the one that rocked Chelyabinsk.
“If you do a good thorough search, you might find that there are no potentially dangerous objects in the impact orbit. And that would be great,” Mainzer said. “It’s simple enough to go find out the answer, so we should go do it.”
If DART’s impact goes according to plan on Monday, NASA will be better equipped to deflect any nearby asteroids NEO Surveyor might discover.
September 23, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect a budget cut for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Surveyor project.
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