Most people will know that about 64 million years ago an asteroid with a diameter of about 10 km struck the Yucatán peninsula and exterminated the dinosaurs, or at least did great damage to them from which they never recovered. The shock-wave probably also initiated the formation of the Deccan Traps, and the unpleasant emission of poisonous gases which would finish off any remaining dinosaurs. The crater is 180 km wide and 20 km deep. That was a very sizeable excavation. Rather wisely, we would like to avoid a similar fate, and the question is, can we do anything about it? NASA thinks so, and they carried out an experiment.
I would be extremely surprised if, five years ago, anyone reading this had heard of Dimorphos. Dimorphos is a small asteroid with dimensions about those of the original Colosseum, i.e. before vandals, like the Catholic Church took stones away to make their own buildings. By now you will be aware that Dimorphos orbits another larger asteroid called Didymos. What NASA has done was to send a metallic object of dimensions 1.8 x 1.9 x 2.6 meters, of mass 570 kg, and velocity 22,530 km/hr to crash into Dimorphos to slightly slow its orbital speed, which would change its orbital parameters. It would also change then orbital characteristics of the two around the sun. Dimorphos has a “diameter” of about 160 m., Didymos about 780 m. Neither are spherical hence the quotation marks.
This explains why NASA selected Dimorphos for the collision. First, it is not that far from Earth, while the two on their current orbits will not collide with Earth on their current orbits. Being close to Earth, at least when their orbits bring them close, lowers the energy requirement to send an object there. It is also easier to observe what happens hence more accurately determine the consequences. The second reason is that Dimorphos is reasonably small and so if a collision changes its dynamics, we shall be able to see by how much. At first sight you might say that conservation of momentum makes that obvious, but it is actually more difficult to know because it depends on what takes the momentum away after the collision. If it is perfectly inelastic, the object gets “absorbed” by the target which stays intact, then we simply add its relative momentum to that of the target. However, real collisions are seldom inelastic, and it would have been considered important to determine how inelastic. A further possibility is that the asteroid could fragment, and send bits in different directions. Think of Newton’s cradle. You hit one end and the ball stops but another flies off from the other end, and the total stationary mass is the same. NASA would wish to know how well the asteroid held together. A final reason for selecting Dimorphos would be that by being tethered gravitationally to Didymos, it could not go flying off is some unfortunate direction, and eventually collide with Earth. It is interesting that the change of momentum is shared between the two bodies through their gravitational interaction.
So, what happened, apart from the collision. There was another space craft trailing behind: the Italian LICIACube (don’t you like these names? It is an acronym for “Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging Asteroids”, and I guess they were so proud of the shape they had to have “cube” twice!). Anyway, this took a photograph before and after impact, and after impact Dimorphos was surrounded by a shower of material flung up from the asteroid. You could no longer see the asteroid for the cloud of debris. Of course Dimorphos survived, and the good news is we now know that the periodic time of Dimorphos around Didymos has been shortened by 32 minutes. That is a genuine success. (Apparently, initially a change by as little as 73 seconds would have been considered a success!) Also, very importantly, Dimorphos held together. It is not a loosely bound rubble pile, which would be no surprise to anyone who has read my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”.
This raises another interesting fact. The impact slowed Dimorphos down relative to Didymos, so Dimorphos fell closer to Didymos, and sped up. That is why the periodic time was shortened. The speeding up is because when you lower the potential energy, you bring the objects closer together and thus lower the total energy, but this equals the kinetic energy except the kinetic energy has the opposite sign, so it increases. (It also shortens the path length, which also lowers the periodic time..)
The reason for all this is to develop a planetary protection system. If you know that an asteroid is going to strike Earth, what do you do? The obvious answer is to divert it, but how? The answer NASA has tested is to strike it with a fast-moving small object. But, you might protest, an object like that would not make much of a change in the orbit of a dinosaur killer. The point is, it doesn’t have to. Take a laser light and point it at a screen. Now, give it a gentle nudge so it changes where it impacts. If the screen as a few centimeters away the lateral shift is trivial, but if the screen is a kilometer away, the lateral shift is now significant, and in fact the lateral shift is proportional to the distance. The idea is that if you can catch the asteroid far enough away, the asteroid won’t strike Earth because the lateral shift will be sufficient.
You might protest that asteroids do not travel in a straight line. No, they don’t, and in fact have trajectories that are part of an ellipse. However, this is still a line, and will still shift laterally. The mathematics are a bit more complicated because the asteroid will return to somewhere fairly close to where it was impacted, but if you can nudge it sufficiently far away from Earth it will miss. How big a nudge? That is the question about which this collision was designed to provide us with clues.
If something like Dimorphos struck Earth it would produce a crater about 1.6 km wide and 370 m deep, while the pressure wave would knock buildings over tens of km away. If it struck the centre of London, windows would break all over South-East England. There would be no survivors in central London, but maybe some on the outskirts. This small asteroid would be the equivalent a good-sized hydrogen bomb, and, as you should realize, a much larger asteroid would do far more damage. If you are interested in further information, I have some data and a discussion of such collisions in my ebook noted above.