Two new missions from NASA will not only gather valuable new insights on how the Earth was formed, they could also help prevent the end of the world.
The first, named Lucy, is on a twelve-year journey to eight different asteroids, to study their composition.
The $980 million (£714 million) spacecraft is currently parked in Earth orbit while NASA engineers troubleshoot a minor glitch in its energy-gathering solar arrays.
The second probe, DART, will launch on November 24.
DART, or to give it its full name the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, will be the first test of a new technology to prevent future asteroid collisions of the type that ended the age of the dinosaurs.
Lucy’s flight path will take it through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and then onwards to visit the Jupiter Trojans – a large group of asteroids being dragged around in the wake of the mighty giant gas planet.
Even if Lucy’s second wing can’t be opened successfully, the spacecraft will still complete its mission:
"That solar array is generating nearly the expected power when compared to the fully deployed wing,” said a NASA statement.
“This power level is enough to keep the spacecraft healthy and functioning.”
Meanwhile, DART will be the first demonstration of a “kinetic impactor technique” – essentially a high-powered gun – which is designed to change the motion of an asteroid in space.
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Patrick King, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, says that kinetic impactors are a better defence against an oncoming asteroid than the nuclear missiles we so often see used in movies.
Blowing an asteroid up, King says, just gives us more asteroids to track.
“One of the challenges in assessing disruption is that you need to model all of the fragment orbits, which is generally far more complicated than modelling a simple deflection,” he explained.
He says the nuclear option would only be a last resort, when we spotted an asteroid that was only months away from impact.
DART will attempt to intercept 65803 Didymos, a near-Earth asteroid which is orbited by a tiny “moonlet” called Dimorphos. The 55-foot wide mini-moon will be struck by DART, which weighs almost 80 stone, at a speed of almost 15,000mph.
If successful, scientists will be able to detect a change in the space rock’s orbit.
“It must be stressed that, currently, there are no known future asteroid-Earth collisions,” writes space expert Gareth Dorrian in The Conversation, “but clearly it is best to prepare for such an eventuality.
Asteroids themselves are still mysterious, he explains. Thought to be the remnants of the solar system’s basic building blocks, asteroids “somehow escaped” the planet-forming process, “preserving something of the conditions of our early solar system, from a time before even the planets had formed”.
The force that brought these smaller space rocks together to form massive objects like the Earth, and the incredibly dense core of Jupiter, is still being investigated., he says.
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