NASA will slam a spacecraft into an asteroid. This tiny witness will show us what happens. (2023)

By Tereza Pultarova


Understanding the effects of the impact in detail is crucial for designing an effective planetary defense system.

NASA will slam a spacecraft into an asteroid. This tiny witness will show us what happens. (1)
(Video) NASA's DART spacecraft crashes into asteroid in first planetary defense test | full video

When NASA's DART spacecraft smashes into asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26, it will have a silent witness: An Italian cubesat called LICIACube will watch the ground-breaking experiment in real time for eager scientists on Earth.

LICIACube, or the Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, is a 31-pound (14 kilograms) micro-satellite that has hitched a ride on DART (the Double Asteroid Redirection Test) to the Didymos-Dimorphos binary asteroid system. DART deployed the cubesat on Sunday (Sept. 11) at 7:14 p.m. EDT (2314 GMT) to give LICIACube 15 days to assume a safe position to observe DART's collision with Dimorphos. The impact is a first-of-its kind experiment designed to alter the orbit of a space rock in a crucial test of a planetary defense concept that may one day save the lives of millions of people on Earth.

"LICIACube will be released from the dispenser on one of DART's external panels, and will be guided (braking and rotating) to start its autonomous journey toward Dimorphos," Elena Mazzotta Epifani, an astronomer at Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and a co-investigator on the LICIACube mission, told in an email. "The cubesat will point its cameras toward the asteroid system, but also to DART, and will probably take some pictures of it."

Related: NASA's DART asteroid-impact mission explained in pictures

The only first-hand witness

LICIACube, fitted with two optical cameras, will follow DART toward Dimorphos and eventually settle in to watch the drama from a safe distance of 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) as the 1,345-pound (610 kg) spacecraft hits the rock on Sept. 26, Mazzotta Epifani added. "The DART impact will be [seen] as an increase of the target luminosity by comparing images of Dimorphos taken before and after the impact," she wrote.

At the time of the impact, Dimorphos and Didymos will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth, according to NASA (opens in new tab). Although Earth-based astronomers will not be able to see the impact, they will closely observe the system in the following weeks to determine whether the 12-hour orbit of the 560-foot-wide (170 meters) Dimorphos around the 2,600 foot-wide (800 m) Didymos will have sped up as expected. They will do that by measuring the intervals between the periods of brief dimming that take place when the two asteroids eclipse each other.

But although such observations might be enough to confirm that the experiment worked, they would not provide any detail of the effects of DART's impact on the asteroid. And so, right after DART smashes into Dimorphos, LICIACube will move closer to inspect the scene.

"LICIACube will … perform a 'fast fly-by' around 3 minutes after DART impact at a minimum distance of about 55 km [34 miles] from Dimorphos' surface at its closest approach," Mazzotta Epifani wrote. "The image acquisition by the two cameras onboard will be almost continuous for around 10 minutes and will be devoted to the target impact and non-impact sides, as well as to the plume produced by the DART impact."

(Video) See the moment NASA’s DART spacecraft collides with asteroid

LICIACube will then send the images to Earth, but Mazzotta Epifani warned it might take weeks to get down all the data.

We know nothing about Dimorphos

Understanding the effects of DART's impact on Dimorphos in depth is crucial as a similar system might one day be needed to deflect a rock on a collision course with Earth. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos could cause a continent-wide destruction while the impact of one the size of the larger Didymos could be felt worldwide.

But there's a catch: Although astronomers know in great detail orbits of most of the 26,115 currently known near-Earth asteroids (2,000 of which are classified as "potentially hazardous" due to their size and closest approach to Earth), they know surprisingly little about these rocks. In particular, scientists don't understand the density of the material the rocks are made of and can only guess how the surface might behave upon impact.

The team behind NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which touched down on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in October 2020, experienced firsthand the pitfalls of these unknowns. The asteroid's unexpectedly soft surface nearly swallowed up the spacecraft, the touchdown generating what OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta described as "a huge wall of debris" that could easily have destroyed the spacecraft.

Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, told when the incident was announced it suggested a deflection attempt might be more difficult than thought, since soft-surfaced asteroids could just absorb the impact.

The team behind DART knows just as little about Dimorphos as the OSIRIS-REx team knew about Bennu before the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid. The images captured by DART itself before the impact and subsequently by LICIACube, will be the first detailed views of Dimorphos astronomers will ever see.

"We know general surface properties of the larger Didymos, thanks to ground-based spectroscopic and photometric measurements, but we do not know almost anything about Dimorphos, which is too small to produce an effect disentangled from the one coming from the main body," Mazzotta Epifani wrote. "We *presume* from theoretical models on formation of binary asteroids that Dimorphos is very similar to Didymos, but we know virtually nothing about the degree of cohesion of surface materials, the size distribution of the surface debris, and so on."

Scientists think Dimorphos is a so-called "rubble pile asteroid" like Bennu: a conglomeration of boulders and dirt that broke off in the past from the main asteroid Didymos and is now only held together by the force of gravity. Since the asteroid is rather small, this force is quite feeble. For this reason, astronomers don't understand the impact that DART will have, how much matter it will throw up into space and how big a crater it might leave behind.

Lessons for the future

"Together, DART and LICIACube will analyze for the first time and with high detail the physical properties of a binary near-Earth asteroid, allowing us to investigate its nature and have hints on its formation and evolution," Mazzotta Epifani wrote. "LICIACube will obtain multiple images of the ejecta plume produced by the impact itself, of the DART impact [crater] size, as well as the non-impact hemisphere to help us to study the size and morphology of the crater and the effects on the surface properties in the surroundings."

The good news is that the more information scientists gather, the better they will be able to predict effects of possible future interventions on similar asteroids.

The Italian Space Agency, which oversees the LICIACube mission currently evaluates plans to extend the mission to conduct other studies of the Didymos-Dimorphos binary asteroid system, Mazzotta Epifani wrote, adding that any decisions on prolonging the mission beyond the immediate aftermath of the impact will only be made after Sept. 26.

(Video) NASA will smash its DART spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday Here's how to watch

Italy's first deep space mission

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For the Italians, who have a burgeoning space industry that has contributed to some of the most high-profile European space projects (including the European Columbus module of the International Space Station), LICIACube is the first deep-space mission the country will operate on its own. Developed and built in less than three and a half years, LICIACube is similar to ArgoMoon, one of the cubesats hitching a ride to the moon on NASA's Artemis 1 mission, which is still waiting for lift off after a fuel leak stopped a launch attempt on Sept. 3.

"LICIACube is not only the first mission in deep space that Italy will operate, it is also the first fully designed, realized and managed in Italy, including data reception and management," Mazzotta Epifani wrote.

With LICIACube, Italy stepped in to fill the gap created by budget approval delays in the European Space Agency's (ESA) HERA mission, a much larger spacecraft, which was originally intended to arrive at the Didymos-Dimorphos duo before the DART impact to inspect the system and then observe the crash and study its aftermath in detail. ESA still plans to launch HERA, but the spacecraft will not reach Didymos before 2027.

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NASA will slam a spacecraft into an asteroid. This tiny witness will show us what happens. (2)

Tereza Pultarova

Senior Writer


Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University.She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

(Video) NASA Had To CRASH A Spacecraft Into An Asteroid.. Here's Why


Why NASA is trying to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid? ›

In a first-of-its-kind maneuver, a NASA spacecraft is set to intentionally smash into an asteroid to test whether deflecting a space rock could one day protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic impact.

What time is NASA crashing into asteroid? ›

What is Nasa planning to do? The agency has targeted the near-Earth asteroid Didymos, more specifically its 525ft (160 metre) diameter moon Dimorphos, into which it will crash a small car-sized spacecraft at 7.14pm EST (12.14am BST, 9.14am AEST).

Did NASA redirect an asteroid? ›

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A spacecraft that plowed into a small, harmless asteroid millions of miles away succeeded in shifting its orbit, NASA said Tuesday in announcing the results of its save-the-world test.

What time will DART impact the asteroid? ›

What time will DART collide with an asteroid? Impact is scheduled for 7:14PM ET, but NASA will begin its coverage of the DART impact at 6PM ET on Monday, September 26th.

What happens when asteroids hit Earth? ›

If the asteroid impacts a land mass, in addition to a huge shock wave, massive amounts of particles would be released into the atmosphere, causing serious environmental damage on a global scale and mass extinctions. As we know, the impact of large asteroids will have devastating effects no matter where they land.

Will DART impact be televised? ›

This mission is called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. NASA's broadcast is scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. ET.

How likely is an asteroid to hit Earth? ›

While space rocks of this magnitude are likely to hit Earth only every hundred million years or so, NEOs 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) across can strike much faster, roughly every thousand years, and can destroy a large city or level similarly large areas, and also lead to ecological destruction.

How can we stop asteroids from hitting Earth? ›

There are a variety of deflection techniques that could save Earth from an incoming asteroid. They range from using a large spacecraft's gravity to pull the asteroid off course, to sending up a kinetic impactor to slam into the asteroid, or even using nuclear detonations.

Can a satellite fall to Earth? ›

It only has to travel about 6,700 miles per hour to overcome gravity and stay in orbit. Satellites can stay in an orbit for hundreds of years like this, so we don't have to worry about them falling down to Earth. Phew! Find out more about our home planet at NOAA SciJinks.

How big was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? ›

Its center is offshore near the community of Chicxulub, after which it is named. It was formed slightly over 66 million years ago when a large asteroid, about ten kilometers (six miles) in diameter, struck Earth. The crater is estimated to be 180 kilometers (110 miles) in diameter and 20 kilometers (12 miles) in depth.

How big is the asteroid that DART hit? ›

DART's target was the binary asteroid system Didymos, which means "twin" in Greek. The system consists of a near-Earth asteroid Didymos measuring 0.48 miles (780 meters) across and its moonlet Dimorphos measuring 525 feet (160 meters) across.

How far is DART from Earth? ›

In this case it was the final act of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, a spacecraft that launched in November and then raced around the sun for 10 months as it pursued its target — a small space rock, Dimorphos, seven million miles from Earth.

How fast is DART moving? ›

The team is now focusing on measuring how much momentum was transferred from DART to Dimorphos. At the time of impact, the spacecraft was moving at about 14,000 miles per hour (22,530 kilometers per hour). Astronomers will analyze the amount of rocks and dust blasted into space after impact.

How big is the asteroid? ›

Asteroids range in size from Vesta – the largest at about 329 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter – to bodies that are less than 33 feet (10 meters) across. The total mass of all the asteroids combined is less than that of Earth's Moon.

How can I watch the asteroid tonight? ›

How can you watch it? You can witness the cosmic crash unfold via NASA's official live broadcast here, starting at 6 p.m. Eastern time. Or, you can watch live images transmitted from the single camera aboard the spacecraft here, starting at 5:30 Eastern time.

Can humanity survive asteroids? ›

Researchers say the event gives us clues as to whether modern humans could survive a dinosaur-size cataclysm today. The answer is yes, but it would be difficult.

What size of asteroid would destroy the Earth? ›

Ultimately, scientists estimate that an asteroid would have to be about 96 km (60 miles) wide to completely and utterly wipe out life on our planet.

How big is the asteroid that's coming in 2022? ›

How big is the asteroid coming towards Earth in 2022? Asteroid 2022 RW is considerably larger than the other two and has an estimated width ranging from 63 meters to 140 meters.

How to watch NASA hit asteroid? ›

NASA plans to live stream the entire event on Sept. 26, and it's inviting the public to tune in on its website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. A live briefing will take place at 6 p.m. ET from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which builds and manages the DART spacecraft.

Is Didymos a threat? ›

The clockwork motion of the Didymos system made it ideal for the DART mission, a demonstration of NASA's ability to redirect dangerous asteroids off collision courses with Earth. Didymos itself poses no threat to our planet but served as a test target.

How far away is Dimorphos? ›

About 7 million miles away from Earth, the asteroid Dimorphos is in orbit around a larger asteroid called Didymos. It usually takes 11 hours 55 minutes for Dimorphos to make a complete orbit.

Which asteroid is most likely to hit Earth? ›

99942 Apophis is a near-Earth asteroid and potentially hazardous asteroid with a diameter of 370 metres (1,210 feet) that caused a brief period of concern in December 2004 when initial observations indicated a probability up to 2.7% that it would hit Earth on April 13, 2029.

Has a meteor ever hit a person? ›

The Only Person Hit by Meteorite

According to Smithsonian Magazine, 34-year-old Ann Hodges was napping under her quilts on the couch in Sylacauga, Alabama, on November 30, 1954, when a nine-pound meteorite hit through her house's ceiling and bounced off a radio before hitting her thigh.

What will happen in 2022 in space? ›

NASA's Space Launch System, which is designed to return humans to the Moon in the Artemis missions, is planned to have a test flight. The maiden flight of Vulcan Centaur was planned for 2022. The launch vehicle is designed by United Launch Alliance to gradually replace Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy at lower costs.

Can a nuclear bomb destroy an asteroid? ›

Using high-fidelity simulations, scientists reported in a study published earlier this month that a stealthy asteroid as long as 330 feet could be annihilated by a one-megaton nuclear device, with 99.9 percent of its mass being blasted out of Earth's way, if the asteroid is attacked at least two months before impact.

When was the last time an asteroid hit Earth? ›

However, asteroids with a diameter of 20 m (66 ft), and which strike Earth approximately twice every century, produce more powerful airbursts. The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be about 20 m in diameter with an airburst of around 500 kilotons, an explosion 30 times the Hiroshima bomb impact.

Would a submarine survive an asteroid? ›

The ocean could be affected by high tsunami and/or pressure waves in the case of a large asteroid or comet impact. Most current submarines can survive at a depth of 400 m, so they might survive long pressure spikes created by the waves above them as high as 200–400 m, but not kilometer size waves.

Can satellites see inside your house? ›

NOAA satellites have the capability to provide astounding views of the Earth. But many people want to know if these satellites can see their house, or even through their roofs and walls to the people inside. The answer is: no.

What happens if US satellites are destroyed? ›

Even if small chunks of satellites managed to hit the ground, their shockwaves could cause considerable damage. The kinetic energy of all these satellites hitting Earth would be like dropping nuclear bombs. And another similarity these satellites have with nuclear bombs? Many of them would be radioactive.

What happens if we lose all satellites? ›

There would be no more satellite data showing the health of crops, illegal logging in the Amazon or Arctic ice cover. Satellites used to produce images and maps for rescue workers responding to disasters would be missed, as would the satellites producing long-term records of climate.

How big is the asteroid that's coming in 2022? ›

How big is the asteroid coming towards Earth in 2022? Asteroid 2022 RW is considerably larger than the other two and has an estimated width ranging from 63 meters to 140 meters.

Will there be an asteroid in 2022? ›

NASA has warned that an asteroid named Asteroid 2022 ST1 is heading for Earth and is expected to pass by the planet closely today, September 22. Asteroid 2022 ST1 is already on its way towards us travelling at a staggering speed of 48,708 kilometers per hour.

How can I watch the asteroid tonight? ›

How can you watch it? You can witness the cosmic crash unfold via NASA's official live broadcast here, starting at 6 p.m. Eastern time. Or, you can watch live images transmitted from the single camera aboard the spacecraft here, starting at 5:30 Eastern time.

Will an asteroid hit Earth in 2032? ›

"To put it another way, that puts the current probability of no impact in 2032 at about 99.998 percent," Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Thursday in a statement. "This is a relatively new discovery.

What asteroid will hit the Earth in 2022? ›

Back in March 2022, the asteroid 2022 EB5, a small asteroid around half the size of a giraffe, struck the Earth just hours after its discovery, resulting in no damage.

How big is the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? ›

Its center is offshore near the community of Chicxulub, after which it is named. It was formed slightly over 66 million years ago when a large asteroid, about ten kilometers (six miles) in diameter, struck Earth. The crater is estimated to be 180 kilometers (110 miles) in diameter and 20 kilometers (12 miles) in depth.

What asteroid killed the dinosaurs? ›

Scientists already know that an asteroid—or perhaps a comet—struck Earth off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. The resulting 110 miles/80 kilometers wide Chicxulub crater is thought to have caused a decades-long “impact winter” that killed the dinosaurs.

How big is the 2027 asteroid? ›

An asteroid, named "2019 PDC", was discovered that will come dangerously close to the earth 8 years from now, on April 29, 2027. The space rock is between 330 and 1000 feet in size, somewhere in between the length of 6.5 school buses to the height of two Washington Monuments stacked on top of each other.

Is there an asteroid coming in 2023? ›

It's going to deliver that sample to NASA September 24, 2023 as it swings by Earth—and then it's off on a new mission of explore a near-Earth asteroid that could one day be a “planet-killer.” The Apophis asteroid is enormous and classed as “potentially hazardous” by NASA.

When was the last asteroid that hit Earth? ›

The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be about 20 m in diameter with an airburst of around 500 kilotons, an explosion 30 times the Hiroshima bomb impact. Much larger objects may impact the solid earth and create a crater.

What time is the meteor shower tonight 2022? ›

The shower is expected to reach peak activity at around 10:00 PDT on 9 September 2022, and so the best displays might be seen before dawn on 9 September.

Why is the moon so bright tonight? ›

At the time of writing, we're within 24 hours of full moon, so it looks big and bright in the sky. It looks so much bigger than everything else in the night sky because it's near us, and so bright because it's reflecting light from the Sun.

What is the bright white star in the sky? ›

Venus can often be seen within a few hours after sunset or before sunrise as the brightest object in the sky (other than the moon). It looks like a very bright star. Venus is the brightest planet in the Solar System.

What asteroid will hit Earth in 2068? ›

In 48 years, an asteroid named after the Egyptian God of Chaos Apophis might hit the Earth. Apophis will pass particularly close to the Earth in 2068, Popular Mechanics reports. And because its orbit is drifting little by little, there's a chance that it actually hits us.

What size asteroid can destroy a city? ›

Astronomers consider a near-Earth object a threat if it will come within 4.6 million miles (7.4 million km) of the planet and is at least 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter. If a celestial body of this size crashed into Earth, it could destroy an entire city and cause extreme regional devastation.

How much damage would a 1 mile wide asteroid do? ›

If a mile-wide asteroid hit Earth, it would strike the planet's surface at about 30,000 miles per hour (48,280 kilometers per hour). An asteroid that big traveling at that speed has the energy roughly equal to a 1 million megaton bomb. It's difficult to imagine 1 million megatons, so let's try some smaller sizes.


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