The conquest of space and the experiments of NASA still fascinate ordinary mortals. The launch of the Artemis mission -ultimately postponed twice due to technical problems – was once again proof of this. Broken down into three stages, it should allow humans to return to the Moon at the earliest in 2025, fifty-three years later. Apollo 17.
Touted as the great space project of the year 2022, this new space challenge has made the cover of newspapers all over the globe and nearly 400,000 people were expected in Florida, around Cape Canaveral, where the Space Kennedy Center is located, to witness the rocket’s second take-off attempt. A passion still intact more than half a century later the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the famous Earth satellite in 1969.
Anticipate rather than react
If each of us has at least once philosophized about the meaning of life and dreamed of touching the stars while looking at the sky in the middle of the night, we are also well aware of the danger that space can represent for the human species. . On the one hand it is a foreign environment that we know little about, despite the many scientific discoveries; on the other hand, it is composed of moving bodies capable of reducing us to nothing in an instant.
These elements are not unknown to scientists, quite the contrary and the American space agency has made preservation of the earth a priority. Behind the decor made of rhinestones and sequins for Artemis is played another part, less media, but perhaps more important for the human being: the mission Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the outcome of which should take place on Monday September 26 and which aims to prepare us to face the worst, namely the approach of a deadly asteroid. So let’s forget about Artemis for a moment.
What would happen if a comet hit Earth?
The probability of a cataclysmic collision of an asteroid with Earth is very low in the short term, but high enough in the long term to be of interest to NASA. It was to deal with this eventuality that the United States Congress granted its space agency additional resources in the early 1990s, aftera comet hit the planet Jupiter. This was the first observable planetary impact, in this case that of the twenty-one fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.
In January 2016, a Planetary Defense Coordination Office was even created in Washington DC to search for and catalog the asteroids or comets of the solar system whose orbit around the Sun brings them to a short distance from Earth’s orbit, and to help the American government deal with any of potential impact.
An impactor launched at 25,000 km/h
Beyond the review of these near-Earth objects, the objective of these planetary defense programs is to develop a strategy to avoid collisions. DART fits into this framework and finds its roots in a mission concept of the European Space Agency (ESA) dating from 2004, which did not succeed, the objective of which was to demonstrate the possibility of deflecting an asteroid thanks to an impactor.
What plan for humanity’s survival if an asteroid crashes into Earth?
Due to a lack of budget, the project initially remained on the cards. However, it was revived a decade later, when the two agencies decided to join forces for the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, which will take the name DART in 2017, following the cancellation of ESA’s participation. This time, it is carried to the end: a space probe is launched in November 2021.
After a journey of just under a year through space, the impactor should thus crash into a body in orbit around the asteroid Didymos this September 26. NASA hopes that the approximately 500 kilos of the probe, projected at more than 25,000 km / h, will be sufficient to modify the trajectory of the latter. This operation, which poses no risk to the Earth, is crucial: it is one of the most important experiments for (the survival of) humanity.
Reality exceeds fiction
The devastating impact of an asteroid on Earth, destroying all forms of life, has been the subject of many film or series scenarios. We think first of all Armageddon, by Michael Bay, released in 1998, in which NASA attempts a last-ditch mission to destroy the celestial body with nuclear charges and which was very successful.
More recently it is Don’t Look Up, by Adam McKay who conquered the public by successfully drawing a parallel between climate change and the fall of an asteroid, without a happy ending this time. But this is the first season of series Salvation, released in 2018, which could come closest to the DART mission. The protagonists indeed decide to send a gravitational thruster capable of diverting the supposed asteroid from its course. If the means used are somewhat different, the objective is the same: to avoid the collision without resorting to nuclear weapons.
The main difference here is that in reality, the most famous space agency in the world anticipates. NASA does not want to have to act at the last moment, in haste and without experience, in the event of a disaster scenario. The whole point of DART is in foresight and anticipation. Failure is allowed and will even allow research to progress. As for success, it will offer hope and a first weapon to the human species.
Because the question is not whether a cataclysmic collision of an asteroid with the Earth will happen, but when it will occur. And if humanity still exists at this time, it will probably be forced to dive back into this first experience of “planetary defense” to find a solution.
Let’s be clear, this mission is as important or even more important than Artemis and its under-hyping is a mystery. So that our species does not one day meet the same fate as the dinosaurs, let’s hope that DART is a success.