The dangers of an asteroid collision taking place have been pondered over by many, with concerns growing daily as we become more aware of space and our surroundings on a cosmic level.
NASA’s deal to bolster planetary defenses against asteroids
Just one day after World Asteroid Day, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) has warned of two space rocks due to soar through the Earth’s backyard, as planetary defense preparations start to ramp up.
The first of the incoming objects is the 69-foot wide 2019 AC3, an Apollo-class asteroid travelling at roughly 8,000 miles per hour and due to fly past at a safe distance of 2.5 million miles away.
Later on Wednesday, at almost double the size and over twice the speed of its predecessor, the 135-foot, Aten-class asteroid 2020 MK3 will shoot past at 19,000 miles an hour. The asteroid will come much closer to us, passing within 440,000 miles of our planet. While this is a close shave in space rock terms, it’s still over 1.5 times the distance between us and the moon, so there’s nothing to worry about.
The close flyby couldn’t have come at a better time, as the ink dried on a deal between NASA and the US Space Force to combine their resources to track near-Earth objects and better prepare to fight off any potential impact threats – be they planet killers or space rocks on the scale of the Chelyabinsk event.
Fighting off planetary devastation
With the increased belief to bolster planetary defenses, there is a growing concern that Earth may not be ready to face such threats if the day ever comes. Chances of avoiding an impact from an accelerating asteroid are bleak at best, but one can still hope.
.@NASA & @SpaceForceDoD have signed an agreement to share data from the USSF Space Surveillance Telescope in Australia with NASA's Planetary Defense program. Together, NASA, USSF, & RAAF will find & track near-Earth objects (NEOs) to be ready for any potential impact threat. pic.twitter.com/GdKlgnPXH0
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 29, 2020
Asteroid impact avoidance comprises a number of methods by which near-Earth objects (NEO) could be diverted, preventing destructive impact events. A sufficiently large impact by an asteroid or other NEOs would cause, depending on its impact location, massive tsunamis or multiple firestorms, and an impact winter caused by the sunlight-blocking effect of placing large quantities of pulverized rock dust, and other debris, into the stratosphere.
In 2016, a NASA scientist warned that the Earth is unprepared for such an event. In April 2018, the B612 Foundation reported “It’s 100 percent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid], but we’re not 100 percent sure when.” Also in 2018, physicist Stephen Hawking, in his final book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, considered an asteroid collision to be the biggest threat to the planet. Several ways of avoiding an asteroid impact have been described. Nonetheless, in March 2019, scientists reported that asteroids may be much more difficult to destroy than thought earlier. In addition, an asteroid may reassemble itself due to gravity after being disrupted.
According to expert testimony in the United States Congress in 2013, NASA would require at least five years of preparation before a mission to intercept an asteroid could be launched. In June 2018, the US National Science and Technology Council warned that America is unprepared for an asteroid impact event, and developed and released the “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy Action Plan” to better prepare.
Most deflection efforts for a large object require from a year to decades of warning, allowing time to prepare and carry out a collision avoidance project, as no known planetary defense hardware has yet been developed. It has been estimated that a velocity change of just 3.5/t × 10−2 m·s−1 (where t is the number of years until potential impact) is needed to successfully deflect a body on a direct collision trajectory. In addition, under certain circumstances, much smaller velocity changes are needed.
Deflecting an Asteroid
As the old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, and Earth’s planetary defense should be no exception, as the International Astronomical Union has named the first target in testing our mettle against space-based threats.
In late 2022, NASA will conduct its Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, against the newly dubbed ‘Dimorphos’ moonlet asteroid – which orbits the larger (524ft) asteroid known as Didymos – in the first-ever asteroid deflection mission, which will take place some 6,835,083 miles from our planet.
“Dimorphos, which means ‘two forms,’ reflects the status of this object as the first celestial body to have the ‘form’ of its orbit significantly changed by humanity – in this case, by the DART impact,” said Kleomenis Tsiganis, a planetary scientist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the member of the DART team who suggested the name.
“As such, it will be the first object to be known to humans by two, very different forms: the one seen by DART before impact, and the other seen by the European Space Agency’s Hera, a few years later.”
RT with additional input by GVS News Desk
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