It is the kind of stuff sci-fi movies and science fiction are made of. An asteroid hurtling towards the earth, its collision having the potential to wipe out all life forms. And human beings (mostly United States as a country) manage to execute a last-minute plan to deflect the asteroid from its trajectory and avoid the collision.
On Tuesday morning (04:46 am India time), NASA, for the first time, enacted this script in real life. Just that the asteroid in question was not headed towards the earth, and there was no danger of any collision. What NASA managed to do was to let one of its spacecraft, sent specially for this purpose last year, crash itself against a small asteroid that was orbiting the Sun 11 million km away from Earth. By doing so, it hopes to change the orbit of the asteroid. How much it succeeded in its effort would become known only after measurements are done.
The 11 million km (about 300 times the distance to moon) is the closest that this asteroid, Dimorphos, comes to Earth while going around in its orbit. There was absolutely no danger that it would have come and collided with Earth. Tuesday’s collision was, therefore, just a technology demonstration, and an experiment to assess the capabilities to do such maneouvers in future should a need arise.
Asteroid collision is real
Though there was no threat to Earth from this particular asteroid — and NASA says there is no real danger to Earth from asteroids for the next 100 years at least — asteroid collisions are real, and can happen. The dinosaurs, and most other life forms at that time, are known to have become extinct following an asteroid collision about million years ago.
As recently as 2013, an asteroid entered the earth’s atmosphere and exploded over Russia, causing injuries to hundreds of people, and causing widespread damage.
Small asteroids — millions of them orbit the Sun – keep entering the earth’s atmosphere fairly regularly, but burn out due to friction before they reach the surface. Some of them do drop to the surface but are not large enough to cause harm. The danger is from bigger asteroids. The one that destroyed the dinosaurs was about 10 km in width. According to NASA, an asteroid that big comes towards the Earth only in about 100 to 200 million years.
But smaller ones are more frequent. There is a probability that an asteroid of the size of 25 metres would come once every 100 years. The one that exploded over Russia in 2013 was a little smaller, about 18 metres in size.
The problem is that these calculations are based on asteroids that we know about, only about 26,000. There are many asteroids that we haven’t discovered yet. And these could surprise us.
Tuesday’s mission was called Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. The targeted asteroid Dimorphos is actually a moon to a slightly larger asteroid called Didymos. While Didymos is 780 m at its widest, Dimorphos is about 160 metres. Dimorphos orbits around Didymos, and this two-body system go around the Sun.
One of the reasons scientists chose to target Dimorphos was because of its relatively shorter orbit around Didymos. A deviation in this orbit was likely to be more noticeable, and thus easier to measure, than say, if Didymos itself was targeted and an attempt was made to measure the change in its orbit around the Sun.
The DART mission was launched in November last year. The collision is likely to create a crater on Dimorphos. Whether the impact is able to make a noticeable alteration to its orbit would become known much later as telescopes around the world take measurements.