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Dimorphos seen by DART 11 seconds before impact. The probe was 68 kilometers from the asteroid. This image is the last to contain the entirety of Dimorphos in the field of view.


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And… impact ! In an exercise aimed at deflecting a possible threat to Earth, NASA launched the DART probe against the asteroid Dimorphos early Monday evening.

After 10 months of travel, the 570 kilo vessel, smaller than a car, collided with the small asteroid 160 meters in diameter at a speed of more than 20,000 km/h.

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Asteroid Didymos (top left) and its satellite, Dimorphos, approximately 2.5 minutes before impact of DART with the latter.. The image was taken by the DRACO imager at a distance of 920 kilometers.

NASA teams, gathered at the mission control center in Maryland, United States, exploded with joy at the spectacular images of the asteroid which was inching closer just before the collision.

A few minutes earlier, the asteroid Dimorphos, located about 11 million kilometers from Earth, gradually grew in size in the spectacular images broadcast in directly by the ship. We could clearly see the stones on its gray surface just before the images stopped at the moment of the explosion.

It was amazing to see the latest images! We were glued to the screen. Everything went extremely smooth. The team exploded with joy when seeing the last images, especially when we realized that DART was close enough not to miss the target, confided Julie Bellerose, head of navigation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, from Quebec. from NASA.

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We are embarking on a new era where we potentially have the ability to protect ourselves from a dangerous asteroid impact, said Lori Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA.

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The last complete image of the asteroid Dimorphos taken by the DRACO imager on the DART probe approximately 12 kilometers from the asteroid and 2 seconds before impact. The image shows an area of ​​the asteroid 31 meters in diameter.

It will take a few days to a few weeks before scientists can confirm that the trajectory of the asteroid has indeed been altered. They will do this using telescopes on Earth, which will observe the variation in brightness as the small asteroid passes in front of and behind the large one.

This kamikaze mission, the aim of which is to deflect the trajectory of a celestial object, is a test of planetary defense which should make it possible to better protect humanity.

The DART mission (Dart, in English, and acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test) took off from the Californian Vandenberg base aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last November.

Dimorphos does not represent a real danger for the Earth since its orbit around the Sun only passes seven million kilometers from the Earth at its closest. In addition, NASA's goal is not to destroy it but to push it slightly.

Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid, Didymos (780 meters in diameter), which it circles in 11 hours and 55 minutes. The goal is to reduce Dimorphos' orbit around Didymos by around ten minutes.

This change can be measured by telescopes from Earth.

The objective may seem modest, but this demonstration is crucial for the future. The aim is to better understand how Dimorphos will react, which represents a population of fairly common asteroids but whose exact composition is not known. The effect of the impact will largely depend on its porosity, that is to say whether it is more or less compact.

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The approach of the DART probe occurred at very high speed, around 20,000 km/h.

To reach such a small target, the ship steered itself autonomously for the last four hours, like a self-guided missile. Its camera took the very first images of the asteroid at the last moment at a rate of one image per second.

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A LICIACube satellite passed about 55 km from the asteroid to take images of the impact (visible at top right).

Three minutes Later, a shoebox-sized satellite called LICIACube, released from the spacecraft a few days ago, passed about 55 km from the asteroid to take images. They will be returned to Earth over the coming weeks and months.

The event was also observed by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, which should be able to detect a bright dust cloud.

Then the probe European HERA, which is due to take off in 2024, will closely observe Dimorphos in 2026 to assess the consequences of the impact and calculate, for the first time, the mass of the asteroid.

Very few known asteroids are considered potentially hazardous and none will be in the next 100 years.

However, I guarantee that if you wait long enough, there will be an object, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's chief scientist.

Nearly 30,000 asteroids of all sizes have been cataloged in the vicinity of Earth (they are called near-Earthers, meaning their orbit crosses that of our planet). About 3,000 new asteroids are discovered each year.

Those one kilometer and larger have almost all been spotted, scientists say. But they estimate that they are aware of only 40% of asteroids that measure 140 meters or more, that is to say those capable of devastating an entire region.

The mission is a first step towards a real defense capability, according to Nancy Chabot. Earth has been hit by asteroids for billions of years and it will happen again. As humans, let's make sure we live in a civilization where we can avoid it.

With information by Danny Lemieux, from Découverte

With information from Agence France-Presse

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