Researchers simulate Earth’s defense against an asteroid impact

(ORDO NEWS) — NASA’s Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is the world’s first full-scale planetary defense test against a potential asteroid impact on Earth.

Researchers at the University of Bern and the National Center of Excellence (NCCR) for PlanetS are now showing that rather than leaving a relatively small crater behind, a DART spacecraft colliding with its target could render the asteroid nearly unrecognizable.

Sixty-six million years ago, the impact of a giant asteroid on Earth likely caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Currently, none of the known asteroids poses an immediate threat. But if one day a large asteroid is discovered heading for a collision with the Earth, it may have to be deflected from the trajectory to prevent catastrophic consequences.

Last November, the DART space probe was launched as the first full-scale experiment of such a maneuver: Its task is to collide with an asteroid and deflect it from orbit in order to obtain valuable information for the development of such a planetary defense system.

The results of a new study show that DART can deform its target much more than previously thought.

Direct evidence from space missions such as the Japan Space Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 probe shows that the asteroid may have a very loose internal structure, like a pile of debris, that is held together by gravitational interactions and small cohesive forces.

However, previous DART mission impact simulations have mostly assumed the much harder interior of the Dimorphos target asteroid.

“This could drastically change the outcome of the DART-Dimorphos collision due in September,” the scientists said. Instead of leaving a relatively small 160-meter wide asteroid crater, a 24,000 km/h DART impact could completely deform Dimorphos.

The asteroid could also deviate much more, and the impact could eject more material than previously thought.

“One of the reasons that this variant of the loose internal structure has not been thoroughly studied so far is the lack of necessary methods,” says lead author of the study Sabina Radukan.

“Such impact conditions cannot be recreated in laboratory experiments, and the relatively long and complex process of crater formation after such an impact – several hours in the case of DART – has made it impossible to realistically simulate these impact processes until now,” says Radukan.

Thanks to a new modeling approach that takes into account the propagation of shock waves, compaction and the subsequent flow of material, for the first time it was possible to simulate the entire process of cratering from a collision with small asteroids such as Dimorphos.

In 2024, the European Space Agency ESA will send a space probe to Dimorphos as part of the HERA mission.

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