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Asteroid debris from NASA's successful DART mission may strike Mars

In a daring deep space experiment, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission aimed to investigate the potential for deflecting an asteroid’s path by deliberately colliding a spacecraft with it. Now, Mars may suffer unintended consequences of this otherwise successful DART mission.

NASA’s mission, which took place in September 2022, targeted an asteroid named Dimorphos, with the intention of altering its orbit around its larger companion, Didymos.

Mars in the crosshairs of DART asteroid debris

According to a paper by researchers from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) and the DART team, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the impact successfully altered Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes and significantly changed the asteroid’s shape.

Unfortunately, the collision may have sent debris flying into space, potentially into the path of Mars.

The paper reveals that the DART impact resulted in a staggering 1.3–2.2 × 107 kg of material being ejected from the asteroid, equivalent to 0.3 to 0.5 percent of its entire mass.

This displacement caused an 8 percent change in Dimorphos’ mass distribution, drastically altering its shape.

Remarkably, the ejecta consisted of 37 boulders, some measuring up to 22 feet across. As astronomer Andy Rivkin from the DART team stated, “We did not expect that many boulders that were that big to be blown off.”

Tracking DART space rocks and possible Mars impact

While the study indicates that none of the ejected boulders pose a threat to Earth, with the closest passing at a distance of approximately 1.9 million miles in about 2,500 years, there is a possibility that some of these rocks may collide with Mars in the distant future.

The researchers noted that the minimum orbit intersection distance (MOID) between the ejecta and Mars will be very small on four occasions, two around 6,000 years from now and another two around 15,000 years later.

In the unlikely event that these rocks do hit Mars, they may either burn up in the planet’s thin atmosphere or collide with its surface, creating a sizable impact crater.

The researchers stated, “Given the rarefaction of the Martian atmosphere, we expect the boulders to arrive intact on the ground and excavate a small impact crater.”

Importance of monitoring ejecta

Stefania Soldini, an associate professor in space engineering at the University of Liverpool, highlighted the significance of this study for future asteroid deflection missions.

She emphasized that any ejecta resulting from the impact of spacecraft sent to redirect asteroids must be closely monitored, as it could potentially pose a threat to Earth in the future.

Current efforts by NASA, the European Space Agency, and Japan’s space agency to safeguard Earth from potential space-based dangers will also prove valuable for future human settlements on Mars.

Soldini pointed out that while Mars’ atmosphere offers some protection from smaller objects, the moon lacks this defense.

Origin of Earth’s meteorites

The researchers also noted that the results of this study provide further evidence that some meteorites found on Earth may have originated from collisions between near-Earth asteroids measuring around 328 feet and projectiles of approximately 3 feet in size.

Despite the intriguing findings of the DART mission, it is important to note that none of the 33,000 near-Earth asteroids currently being tracked by NASA are on a collision course with our planet in the near future.

More about the DART mission and Mars’ involvement

As discussed above, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, launched on November 23, 2021, aimed to demonstrate the effectiveness of using a kinetic impact technique to deflect an asteroid’s trajectory.

This innovative mission marked the first-ever attempt to alter the path of a celestial body, paving the way for future planetary defense strategies.

Target: Dimorphos and Didymos

DART targeted a binary asteroid system consisting of a larger asteroid named Didymos (2,560 feet in diameter) and its smaller moonlet, Dimorphos (525 feet in diameter).

The mission’s objective was to collide the DART spacecraft with Dimorphos, altering its orbit around Didymos and providing valuable data on the feasibility of using this method to protect Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids.

Collision was a successful impact

On September 26, 2022, at 7:14 p.m. EDT, the DART spacecraft successfully impacted Dimorphos at a speed of approximately 4 miles per second.

The collision occurred about 7 million miles from Earth, with the spacecraft transmitting images up until the moment of impact. This historic event marked the first time humans deliberately changed the motion of a celestial body in space.

Measuring the results was a global effort

Following the impact, astronomers worldwide used various telescopes to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos.

Initial observations indicated that the collision shortened the moonlet’s orbital period by 32 minutes, surpassing the mission’s target of 73 seconds or more.

This significant change demonstrated the effectiveness of the kinetic impact technique in altering an asteroid’s path.

Lessons learned will inform future missions

The DART mission provided invaluable data and insights that will inform the development of future planetary defense strategies.

By demonstrating the feasibility of the kinetic impact technique, DART has laid the foundation for more advanced missions and technologies aimed at protecting Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids.

United global effort in planetary defense

The success of the DART mission highlights the importance of international collaboration in addressing global challenges like planetary defense.

NASA worked closely with international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), to ensure the mission’s success and gather critical data for analysis.

DART, Mars, and the consequences of success

The DART mission’s unexpected findings serve as a powerful reminder of the complex and interconnected nature of our solar system.

As we continue to explore and push the boundaries of our understanding, we must remain vigilant in monitoring the consequences of our actions and proactive in developing strategies to protect Earth and future space settlements from potential cosmic threats.

The study’s insights into the origins of Earth’s meteorites and the importance of tracking ejecta from asteroid deflection missions underscore the critical role that ongoing research and international collaboration play in safeguarding our planet and paving the way for a safer future in the cosmos.

The full study was published in the Planetary Science Journal.


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