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Could we really deflect an asteroid heading for Earth? An expert explains NASA's latest DART mission – Phys.Org

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Small asteroid impacts showing day-time impacts (in yellow) and night-time impacts (in blue). The size of each dot is proportional to the optical radiated energy of the impact. Credit: NASA JPL

A NASA spacecraft the size of a golf cart has been directed to smash into an asteroid, with the intention of knocking it slightly off course. The test aims to demonstrate our technological readiness in case an actual asteroid threat is detected in the future.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) lifted off aboard a SpaceX rocket from California on November 23, and will arrive at the target asteroid system in September, next year.

The mission will travel to the asteroid Didymos, a member of the Amor group of asteroids. Every 12 hours Didymos is orbited by a mini-moon, or “moonlet”, Dimorphos. This smaller half of the pair will be DART’s target.

Are we facing an extinction threat from asteroids?

We’ve all seen disaster movies in which an asteroid hits Earth, creating an similar to the one that killed off the dinosaurs millions of years ago. Could that happen now?

Well, Earth is actually bombarded frequently by small asteroids, ranging from 1-20 metres in diameter. Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are usually harmless.

There is an inverse relationship between the size of these object and the frequency of impact events. This means we get hit much more frequently by small objects than larger ones—simply because there are many more smaller objects in space.

Asteroids with a 1km diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years, on average. The most “recent” impact of this size is thought to have formed the Tenoumer impact crater in Mauritania, 20,000 years ago. Asteroids with an approximate 5km diameter impact Earth about once every 20 million years.

The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteoroid, which damaged buildings in six Russian cities and injured around 1,500 people, was estimated to be about 20m in diameter.

This animation shows DART’s trajectory around the Sun. Pink = DART | Green = Didymos | Blue = Earth | Turquoise = 2001 CB21 | Gold = 3361 Orpheus.

Assessing the risk

NASA’s DART mission has been sparked by the threat and fear of a major asteroid hitting Earth in the future.

The Torino scale is a method for categorising the impact hazard associated with a near-Earth object (NEO). It uses a scale from 0 to 10, wherein 0 means there is negligibly small chance of collision, and 10 means imminent collision, with the impacting object being large enough to precipitate a global disaster.

The Chicxulub impact (which is attributed to the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs) was a Torino scale 10. The impacts that created the Barringer Crater, and the 1908 Tunguska event, both correspond to Torino Scale 8.

With the increase of online news and individuals’ ability to film events, asteroid “near-misses” tend to generate fear in the public. Currently, NASA is keeping a close eye on asteroid Bennu, which is the object with the largest “cumulative hazard rating” right now. (You can keep up to date too).

With a 500m diameter, Bennu is capable of creating a 5km crater on Earth. However, NASA has also said there is a 99.943% chance the asteroid will miss us.

Brace for impact

At one point in their orbit around the Sun, Didymos and Dimorphos come within about 5.9 million km of Earth. This is still further away than our Moon, but it’s very close in astronomical terms, so this is when DART will hit Dimorphos.

Could we really deflect an asteroid heading for Earth? An expert explains NASA's latest DART mission
The DART mission dates and timeline events. Credit: Johns Hopkins University

DART will spend about ten months travelling towards Didymos and, when it’s close by, will change direction slightly to crash into Dimorphos at a speed of about 6.6km per second.

The larger Didymos is 780m in diameter and thus makes a better target for DART to aim for. Once DART has detected the much smaller Dimorphos, just 160m in diameter, it can make a last-minute course correction to collide with the moonlet.

The mass of Dimorphos is 4.8 million tonnes and the mass of DART at impact will be about 550kg. Travelling at 6.6km/s, DART will be able to transfer a huge amount of momentum to Dimorphos, to the point where it’s expected to actually change the moonlet’s orbit around Didymos.

This change, to the tune of about 1%, will be detected by ground telescopes within weeks or months. While this may not seem like a lot, 1% is actually a promising shift. If DART were to slam into a lone asteroid, its orbital period around the Sun would change by only about 0.000006%, which would take many years to measure.

So we’ll be able to detect the 1% change from Earth, and meanwhile the pair will continue along its orbit around the Sun. DART will also deploy a small satellite ten days before impact to capture everything.

This is NASA’s first mission dedicated to demonstrating a planetary defence technique. At a cost of US$330 million, it’s relatively cheap in space mission terms. The James Webb Telescope set to launch next month, costs close to US$10 billion.

There will be little to no debris from DART’s impact. We can think of it in terms of a comparable event on Earth; imagine a train parked on the tracks but with no brakes on. Another train comes along and collides with it.

The trains won’t break apart, or destroy one another, but will move off together. The stationary one will gain some speed, and the one impacting it will lose some speed. The trains combine to become a new system with different speeds than before.

So we won’t experience any impact, ripples or debris from the DART mission.

Could we really deflect an asteroid heading for Earth? An expert explains NASA's latest DART mission
Typical asteroid orbits remain between Mars and Jupiter, but some with elliptical orbits can pass close to Earth. Credit: Pearson

Is the effort really worth it?

Results from the mission will tell us just how much mass and speed is needed to hit an asteroid that may pose a threat in the future. We already track the vast majority of asteroids that come close to Earth, so we would have early warning of any such object.

That said, we have missed objects in the past. In October 2021, Asteroid UA_1 passed about 3,047km from Earth’s surface, over Antarctica. We missed it because it approached from the direction of the Sun. At just 1m in size it wouldn’t have caused much damage, but we should have seen it coming.

Building a deflection system for a potential major asteroid threat would be difficult. We would have to act quickly and hit the target with very good aim.

One candidate for such a system could be the new technology developed by the US spaceflight company SpinLaunch, which has designed technology to launch satellites into orbit at rapid speeds. This device could also be used to fire masses at close-passing asteroids.


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Double Asteroid Redirection Test launch could be key step forward in planetary defense


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Ancient life may be just one possible explanation for Mars rover's latest discovery – CTV News

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In the search for life beyond Earth, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on a nearly decade-long mission to determine if Mars was ever habitable for living organisms.

A new analysis of sediment samples collected by the rover revealed the presence of carbon — and the possible existence of ancient life on the red planet is just one potential explanation for why it may be there.

Carbon is the foundation for all of life on Earth, and the carbon cycle is the natural process of recycling carbon atoms. On our home planet, carbon atoms go through a cycle as they travel from the atmosphere to the ground and back to the atmosphere. Most of our carbon is in rocks and sediment and the rest is in the global ocean, atmosphere and organisms, according to NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s why carbon atoms — with their cycle of recycling — are tracers of biological activity on Earth. So they could be used to help researchers determine if life existed on ancient Mars.

When these atoms are measured inside another substance, like Martian sediment, they can shed light on a planet’s carbon cycle, no matter when it occurred.

Learning more about the origin of this newly detected Martian carbon could also reveal the process of carbon cycling on Mars.

A study detailing these findings published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SECRETS IN THE SEDIMENT

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. The 154.5-kilometre crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was probably formed by a meteor impact between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago. The large cavity likely once held a lake, and now it includes a mountain called Mount Sharp. The crater also includes layers of exposed ancient rock.

For a closer look, the rover drilled to collect samples of sediment across the crater between August 2012 and July 2021. Curiosity then heated these 24 powder samples to around 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit (850 degrees Celsius) in order to separate elements. This caused the samples to release methane, which was then analyzed by another instrument in the rover’s arsenal to show the presence of stable carbon isotopes, or carbon atoms.

Some of the samples were depleted in carbon while others were enriched. Carbon has two stable isotopes, measured as either carbon 12 or carbon 13.

“The samples extremely depleted in carbon 13 are a little like samples from Australia taken from sediment that was 2.7 billion years old,” said Christopher H. House, lead study author and professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement.

“Those samples were caused by biological activity when methane was consumed by ancient microbial mats, but we can’t necessarily say that on Mars because it’s a planet that may have formed out of different materials and processes than Earth.”

In lakes on Earth, microbes like to grow in big colonies that essentially form mats just under the surface of the water.

THREE POSSIBLE CARBON ORIGINS

The varied measurements of these carbon atoms could suggest three very different things about ancient Mars. The origin of the carbon is likely due to cosmic dust, ultraviolet degradation of carbon dioxide, or the ultraviolet degradation of biologically produced methane.

“All three of these scenarios are unconventional, unlike processes common on Earth,” according to the researchers.

The first scenario involves our entire solar system passing through a galactic dust cloud, something that occurs every 100 million years, according to House. The particle-heavy cloud could trigger cooling events on rocky planets.

“It doesn’t deposit a lot of dust,” House said. “It is hard to see any of these deposition events in the Earth record.”

But it’s possible that during an event like this, the cosmic dust cloud would have lowered temperatures on ancient Mars, which may have had liquid water. This could have caused glaciers to form on Mars, leaving a layer of dust on top of the ice. When the ice melted, the layer of sediment including carbon would have remained. While it’s entirely possible, there is little evidence for glaciers in Gale Crater and the study authors said it would require further research.

The second scenario involves the conversion of carbon dioxide on Mars into organic compounds, such as formaldehyde, due to ultraviolet radiation. That hypothesis also requires additional research.

The third way this carbon was produced has possible biological roots.

If this kind of depleted carbon measurement was made on Earth, it would show that microbes were consuming biologically produced methane. While Curiosity has previously detected methane on Mars, researchers can only guess if there were once large plumes of methane being released from beneath the surface of Mars. If this was the case and there were microbes on the Martian surface, they would have consumed this methane.

It’s also possible that the methane interacted with ultraviolet light, leaving a trace of carbon on the Martian surface.

MORE DRILLING ON THE HORIZON

The Curiosity rover will be returning to the site where it collected the majority of the samples in about a month, which will allow for another chance to analyze sediment from this intriguing location.

“This research accomplished a long-standing goal for Mars exploration,” House said. “To measure different carbon isotopes — one of the most important geology tools — from sediment on another habitable world, and it does so by looking at nine years of exploration.”

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Mars Was Likely A Cold, Wet World 3 Billion Years Ago – IFLScience

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Mars is puzzling. From rover and satellite observations we know that it once had plenty of water on its surface, which usually suggests warm and wet conditions. On the other hand, evidence suggests the planet was always pretty chilly, even in the distant past, but it’s not a cold, dry desert either. These two ideas are often at odds, but new research suggests that they could both be true: ancient Mars was likely a frigid world both cold and wet.

Researchers set out to create a model that can explain the perplexing features witnessed on the Red Planet. If the planet wasn’t warm and wet or cold and dry could there be a third option? Publishing their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they believe that their cold and wet scenario can explain the existence of a vast liquid ocean in the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, extending to its polar region.

However, the model needed to explain both the presence of a liquid ocean and ice-capped regions, like the presence of glacial valleys and ice sheets in the southern highlands.

Planetary scientists studying Mars have found evidence of ancient tsunamis that rocked the Red Planet. If the ocean was frozen due to a very cold climate, these tsunamis would not have happened. But a milder climate would have meant transferring water from the ocean to the land through precipitation. Cold and wet conditions, however, could have existed.

The team used an advanced general circulation model to work out the necessary parameters for this world. They calculated it was possible for an ocean to be stable even if the mean temperature of Mars was below 0°C (32°F), the freezing point of water, 3 billion years ago. They envisioned ice-covered plateaus in the south with glaciers flowing across the plains and returning to the ocean. Rainfall would have been moderate around the shoreline. In this scenario, the ocean surface could be up to 4.5°C (40°F); not tropical but enough for water to stay liquid.

The key to these conditions is all in the air. The atmosphere of Mars today is about 1 percent in density compared to Earth’s own. But, if in the past it was roughly the same and was made of about 10 percent hydrogen and the rest carbon dioxide, this scenario would actually work. Previous analyses have found strong evidence for a thicker atmosphere before it was ripped from the planet by the steady stream of particles from the Sun.

The model is certainly compelling in explaining the peculiarities of Mars, but of course, much more evidence is needed to understand what the Red Planet was really like billions of years ago.

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Explainer-Scientists struggle to monitor Tonga volcano after massive eruption

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Scientists are struggling to monitor an active volcano that erupted off the South Pacific island of Tonga at the weekend, after the explosion destroyed its sea-level crater and drowned its mass, obscuring it from satellites.

The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300 kms (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

“The concern at the moment is how little information we have and that’s scary,” said Janine Krippner, a New Zealand-based volcanologist with the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program.

“When the vent is below water, nothing can tell us what will happen next.”

Krippner said on-site instruments were likely destroyed in the eruption and the volcanology community was pooling together the best available data and expertise to review the explosion and predict anticipated future activity.

Saturday’s eruption was so powerful that space satellites captured not only huge clouds of ash but also an atmospheric shockwave that radiated out from the volcano at close to the speed of sound.

Photographs and videos showed grey ash clouds billowing over the South Pacific and metre-high waves surging onto the coast of Tonga.

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/impact-assessment-aid-efforts-underway-world-responds-tonga-tsunami-2022-01-16 yet but internet and telephone communications are extremely limited and outlying coastal areas remain cut off.

Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been puffing away for about a month before rising magma, superheated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius, met with 20-degree seawater on Saturday, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion.

The unusual “astounding” speed and force of the eruption indicated a greater force at play than simply magma meeting water, scientists said.

As the superheated magma rose quickly and met the cool seawater, so did a huge volume of volcanic gases, intensifying the explosion, said Raymond Cas, a professor of volcanology at Australia’s Monash University.

Some volcanologists are likening the eruption to the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, which killed around 800 people.

The Tonga Geological Services agency, which was monitoring the volcano, was unreachable on Monday. Most communications to Tonga have been cut after the main undersea communications cable lost power.

LIGHTNING STRIKES

American meteorologist, Chris Vagasky, studied lightning around the volcano and found it increasing to about 30,000 strikes in the days leading up to the eruption. On the day of the eruption, he detected 400,000 lightning events in just three hours, which comes down to 100 lightning events per second.

That compared with 8,000 strikes per hour during the Anak Krakatau eruption in 2018, caused part of the crater to collapse into the Sunda Strait and send a tsunami crashing into western Java, which killed hundreds of people.

Cas said it is difficult to predict follow-up activity and that the volcano’s vents could continue to release gases and other material for weeks or months.

“It wouldn’t be unusual to get a few more eruptions, though maybe not as big as Saturday,” he said. “Once the volcano is de-gassed, it will settle down.”

 

(Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Jane Wardell and Michael Perry)

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