What happens in the disaster film

Armageddon

may one day become reality: a large space fragment threatens to impact Earth.

To prevent such an apocalypse, NASA experiments with the Dart mission.

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With thunderous violence, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket launched a remarkable mission into space from its VandenBerg base near California Lompoc.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) will require a distant asteroid to change course next fall.

Five questions about a test to protect the earth from impacts.

Why is this operation so important?

All celestial bodies bear the scars of space debris impacts.

Every day, the earth is also hit by thousands of fragments, pieces of ice, rock and iron, from garbage dumps in space.

Most debris burns in the atmosphere, but sometimes the debris is so large that it impacts the Earth.

Like in 1908, when a meteorite exploded over Siberia and flattened more than 2000 square kilometers of forest.

If the space debris is so large that it impacts Earth, the consequences could be catastrophic.

About 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs came to an end when a 10-kilometer-wide debris impacted the Yucatán in Mexico.

What is the probability of impact?

According to NASA, more than 90 percent of potentially dangerous asteroids the size of a mountain have been mapped.

Astronomers have also identified 890 smaller asteroids of a kilometer or more that occasionally come close to Earth's orbit.

No danger is expected from the known debris for the next hundred years, but the undiscovered asteroids are of course cause for concern.

"That's why we have to remain vigilant," says astronomer Amy Mainzer, of the University of Arizona and the specialist in this field.

What ingenious plan is hidden behind Dart?

The spacecraft, the size of a golf cart and weighing 550 kilograms, is on a suicide mission. After a journey of almost 10 million kilometers around September 26, 2022, it will collide head-on at a speed of 24,000 kilometers per hour with the asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos like a moon. This test should show whether so-called kinetic impact technology can be used to deflect space chunks that threaten the Earth into their orbit. Even the smallest change, of a millimeter per second, can cause an anomaly, said Andy Rivkin, leader of the Dart research team. In this case, it is believed that Dart can slow the asteroid's speed by 5 inches per second, slowing the moon's orbit around Didymos by ten minutes.

Operation of DART.

The spacecraft should slam into Dimorphos, causing it to change orbit around Didymos.

This way we can see if we can stop any future asteroids.

Operation of DART.

The spacecraft should slam into Dimorphos, causing it to change orbit around Didymos.

This way we can see if we can stop any future asteroids.

Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

How do astronomers know what triggered the collision?

The 'suicide' will be imaged by the LiciaCube, a satellite designed by Italy.

She sits on the Dart and disconnects ten days before the impact to be able to send images of it to Earth.

Every minute deviation will be mapped using telescopes on Earth.

"For the very first time, humanity will change the motion of a celestial body," said NASA collaborator Tom Statler, the project's scientific leader.

Are there other techniques for defusing asteroids?

If a larger specimen is discovered only a few months before the impact, then there is only one option, following the example of the movie

Armageddon

: with nuclear weapons.

In that case, some of the asteroid's surface will vaporize, giving it additional speed, hopefully enough to change course.

But if an asteroid is discovered much earlier, a Dart can be deployed.

Some researchers are pinning their hopes on laser techniques to partially burn the asteroids.

Other scientists say that placing solar sails on the asteroids could affect their course by the influence of sunlight.

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