San Antonio SwRI’s mission is to deflect the asteroid from its path


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In 2003, Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, joined a research team to shoot tiny aluminum balls at the rocks.

Researchers bought large chunks of carbon that looked like asteroids from private dealers, took them to NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range in Silicon Valley, California, and detonated them with pellets fired from a handgun. light gas.

They were studying kinetic impact deflection, which is how asteroids respond to force. Almost two decades of experiments have taught them that it is safer to push the ancient rubble of space to change their course than to break one, because its fragments could continue to run through space and then slip away. crash on Earth.

Earlier this week, NASA used the same approach in a very first test to protect the human race against asteroids – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. Durda is part of NASA’s project team for the mission.

The agency launched a spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket early Wednesday from Vandenberg Space Force base in California. The rocket performs a 6.8 million mile flight in 10 months around the Sun and toward the Disymos asteroid system. The 1,200-pound spacecraft is expected to collide with Dimorphos, an asteroid 525 feet in diameter, at 15,000 mph in late September 2022.

Durda, who works at SwRI’s office in Boulder, Colo., Drove to the Space Force base to witness the launch with hundreds of colleagues from a wide swath of grass strewn with tents and food trucks.

“It was a beautiful clear sky with a gibbous moon that provided a great view of the launch throughout the main engine shutdown and the second engine start,” he said. “He disappeared into a bank of clouds deep in the second stage.”

DART is NASA’s very first mission “to experience pushing on a small asteroid and seeing how it reacts if ever we ever have to do it with a real threatening asteroid,” Durda said.

Earth is not in imminent danger of a massive asteroid strike – at least NASA does not know of any large boulders targeting the planet in the next 100 years. But Durda and other researchers believe it’s best to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

“It’s not a joke,” he said. “We have been experimenting and modeling these experiments for decades in the laboratory. But this is the first time that we have been able to experiment on a real world scale. There are still a lot of unknowns, and the only way to come full circle is to experience it, but we’re finally doing it.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft on board on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 Pacific Time (November 24, Eastern Time) from Space Launch Complex 4E, at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. NASA launched the spacecraft as part of a mission to crash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to deflect a fast-moving space rock if Earth was threatened. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP)

Bill Ingalls, HOGP / Associated Press

“Watching a mission launch knowing that we are really stepping up our game and taking it seriously is a good feeling,” he added.

NASA has said it aims to take Dimorphos slightly off its orbital path. The space agency is building on the work of a multitude of researchers studying kinetic impact deflection, including James Walker and Sidney Chocron, colleagues at SwRI based in San Antonio.

Hours after the launch, SwRI tweeted congratulations to NASA, the mission team, and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which developed DART in Maryland. SwRI, a non-profit contract research organization, also highlighted its involvement in the launch: “SwRI impact specialists and asteroid researchers are members of the project team. Go DART! “

In announcing the take-off, the NASA Defense Coordination Office tweeted: “Asteroids have been hitting Earth for billions of years. Now we start to stop it. Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of SpaceX, to responded with a rallying cry: “Venge the dinosaurs !!”

The research behind DART is deeply rooted in the findings of Durda and other researchers, presented after years of unloading aluminum balls into asteroid-like rocks.

The DART, he said, “is a small car that collides with a bigger car on a highway, except in this case it’s a small spacecraft and a large near-Earth asteroid.”

“It’s action-reaction,” he says. “You push something, it pushes back.”

On Friday, the DART had separated from the SpaceX rocket and completed “the successful deployment of its two 28-foot-long solar panels,” NASA said, describing the two gold cylinders flanking the sides of the spacecraft.

The solar panels are expected to power the spacecraft and the agency’s scalable xenon thruster, a commercial ion engine tested during the mission.

“In addition to all the ways that NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we are also working to protect this house, and this test will help prove a viable way to protect our planet from a dangerous asteroid should we ever find out that is headed for Earth, ”NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

A photo provided by NASA shows members of the DART team installing the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft's only instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO), in June 2021. The DART spacecraft could be the first to alter an asteroid? s path, a technique that can be used to defend the planet in the future.  (NASA via The New York Times)? '  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY? '

A photo provided by NASA shows members of the DART team installing the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft’s only instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO), in June 2021. The DART spacecraft could be the first to alter an asteroid? s path, a technique that can be used to defend the planet in the future. (NASA via The New York Times)? ‘ FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY? ‘

NASA, HO / NYT

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