NASA’s DART spaceship on Monday struck the asteroid Dimorphos in a historic test of humanity’s ability to prevent a cosmic object from devastating life on Earth.
Impact occurred at 7.14 pm EDT, 10 months after the Double Asteroid Redirection Test probe blasted off from California to carry out its first-of-a-kind experiment.
“We’re embarking on a new era, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous hazardous asteroid impact,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Dimorphos – a 160m asteroid roughly comparable to an Egyptian pyramid – orbits a big brother called Didymos. Never seen before, the “moonlet” appeared as a speck of light around an hour before the collision.
Its egg-like shape and craggy, boulder-dotted surface finally came into clear view in the last few minutes, as DART raced toward it at roughly 23,500kmh.
NASA scientists and engineers erupted in applause as the screen froze on a final image, indicating that signal had been lost and impact had taken place.
To be sure, the pair of asteroids pose no threat to our planet as they loop the Sun every two of our years.
But NASA has deemed the experiment important to carry out before an actual need is discovered.
By striking Dimorphos head on, NASA hopes to push it into a smaller orbit, shaving 10 minutes off the time it takes to encircle Didymos, which is currently 11 hours and 55 minutes.
Ground telescopes – which can’t see the asteroid system directly but can detect a shift in patterns of light coming from it – should provide a definitive orbital period in the coming days and weeks.
Astronomy community abuzz
Minutes after impact, a toaster-sized satellite called LICIACube, which already separated from DART a few weeks ago, was expected to make a close pass of the site to capture images of the collision and the ejecta – the pulverised rock thrown off by the strike.
LICIACube’s pictures will be sent back in the next weeks and months.
Also watching the event: an array of telescopes, both on Earth and in space – including the recently operational James Webb – which might be able to see a brightening cloud of dust.
The mission has set the global astronomy community abuzz, with more than three dozen ground telescopes participating, including optical, radio and radar.
“There’s a lot of them, and it’s incredibly exciting to have lost count,” said DART mission planetary astronomer Christina Thomas.
Finally, a full picture of what the system looks like will be revealed when a European Space Agency mission four years down the line called Hera arrives to survey Dimorphos’ surface and measure its mass, which scientists can currently only guess at.
“Earthlings can sleep better”
Very few of the billions of asteroids and comets in our solar system are considered potentially hazardous to our planet, and none are expected in the next hundred years or so.
But wait long enough, and it will happen.
We know that from the geological record – for example, the roughly 10km wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, plunging the world into a long winter that led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs along with 75 per cent of all species.
An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, by contrast, would only cause a regional impact, such as devastating a city, albeit with greater force than any nuclear bomb in history.
How much momentum DART imparts on Dimorphos will depend on whether the asteroid is solid rock, or more like a “rubbish pile” of boulders bound by mutual gravity – a property that’s not yet known.
But its success marks the first step towards a world capable of defending itself from a future existential threat.
“I think Earthlings can sleep better, definitely I will,” said DART mission systems engineer Elena Adams.
‘Every breath you take’: Air pollution stifles Europe’s health targets
PARIS – Air quality in Europe is improving but still poses high risks, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said on Thursday, as fine particles exposure led to at least 238,000 premature deaths in the 27-nation EU in 2020.
“Air pollution is still the largest environmental health risk in Europe,” the EEA said.
“While emissions of key air pollutants and their concentrations in ambient air have fallen significantly over the past two decades in Europe, air quality remains poor in many areas.”
Between 2005 and 2020, the number of early deaths from exposure to fine particulate matter fell by 45% in the European Union, in line with the bloc’s zero pollution action plan target of a 55% cut in premature deaths by 2030.
However, 96% of the EU’s urban population was still exposed in 2020 to concentrations of fine particules that were above the World Health Organization’s guideline level of 5 microgrammes per cubic metre.
Air pollution aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, with heart disease and stroke cited as the most common causes of related early deaths.
“Further efforts will be needed to meet the zero pollution vision for 2050 of reducing air pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to health,” the EEA said.
The European Commission proposed in October to set stricter thresholds for air pollution but also to enhance the right of citizens to clean air. This could include provisions to claim compensation for health damage in case of quality standards breaches.
But air pollution does not only damage health.
According to the EEA, 59% of forested areas were exposed to harmful ground-level ozone in the European Economic Area, damaging vegetation and reducing biodiversity.
In 2020, critical levels of nitrogen deposition were found in 75% of the ecosystem of the 27 member states. This represents a fall of 12% since 2005, against the EU objective for a 25% decline by 2030.
India’s first private rocket company looks to slash satellite costs
BENGALURU – The startup behind India’s first private space launch plans to put a satellite into orbit in 2023 and expects to be able to do so at half of the cost of established launch companies, the founders of Skyroot Aerospace told Reuters in an interview.
The Hyderabad-based company, backed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, GIC, says the $68 million it has raised will fund its next two launches.
Skyroot has been in contact with more than 400 potential customers, it says.
Thousands of small satellite launches are planned in coming years as companies build out networks to deliver broadband services like SpaceX’s Starlink and to power applications like tracking supply chains or monitoring offshore oil rigs.
Skyroot faces both established and up-and-coming rocket launch rivals that also promise to bring down costs. In China, startup Galactic Energy put five satellites into orbit last week in its fourth successful launch.
In Japan, Space One, backed by Canon Electronics and IHI Corp, plans to launch 20 small rockets per year by the middle of the decade.
But Skyroot, which launched a test rocket last week, expects to cut the cost of a launch by 50% compared with current pricing for established competitors like Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit and California-based Rocket Lab USA Inc.
Pawan Chandana, one of Skyroot’s two co-founders, told Reuters he expected a surge in demand for the company’s launch services if it proves itself with launches set for next year.
“Most of these customers have been building constellations and will be launching them in the next five years,” he said.
The Modi government’s push to increase India’s share of the global space launch market from just 1% has given investors confidence that Skyroot and other startups have government backing for their efforts, Skyroot says.
“Three or four months back when we were talking to investors, one of the biggest questions they asked was if the government was supporting us,” Skyroot co-founder Bharath Daka told Reuters.
India opened the door to private space companies in 2020 with a regulatory overhaul and a new agency to boost private-sector launches.
Before that, companies could only act as contractors to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a government space agency with a reputation of its own for frugal engineering. The country’s Mars mission in 2014 cost only $74 million, less than the budget of the Hollywood space movie “Gravity”.
Building on India’s record for cost efficiency will be key, said Chandana. Skyroot, founded in 2018 when Chandana and Daka quit jobs at ISRO, has set a target to develop rockets for one-fifth of the current industry costs.
The Skyroot rocket that reached 89.5 kilometers altitude in last week’s test launch used carbon-fibre components and 3D-printed parts, including the thrusters. That boosted efficiency by 30%, the company says, cutting weight and procurement costs, although it meant Skryoot engineers had to write the machine code for vendors who fabricated the rocket because few had experience working with carbon fibre.
With 3D printing, Skyroot believes it can build a new rocket in just two days as it works towards reusable rockets, a technology pioneered by SpaceX.
Chandana and Daka believe the per-kilogram launch cost for a satellite can be brought down to nearly $10, from thousands of dollars currently, a stretch target that could upend the economics of space commerce and one that draws inspiration from their idol: Elon Musk.
“SpaceX is a symbol of great innovation and great market validation,” said Chandana, who added they have not had the chance to speak to Musk.
“Right now, we think he’s probably busy running Twitter.”
Five key decisions at global wildlife summit
PANAMA CITY — A global wildlife summit that ends Friday passed resolutions to protect hundreds of threatened species, including sharks, reptiles, turtles as well as trees.
Here are some highlights of the two-week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Panama.
1) Sharks steal the show
No longer just the villains of the deep, these ancient predators were the stars of the summit.
Delegates from more than 180 countries agreed to regulate the trade in 54 species of the requiem shark and hammerhead shark families.
These species are the most hunted for their shark fins — seen as a delicacy in some Asian countries — and their numbers have been decimated, putting the entire marine ecosystem at risk.
Only Japan grumbled over the resolution, arguing restrictions on the trade of the blue shark would be a blow to the livelihoods of its fishermen.
CITES also voted to restrict the trade of guitarfish rays and several other freshwater ray species.
|Matamata (chelus fimbriatus) ‘Raffaello’ is measured during inventory on December 29, 2011 at the Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, northern Germany. Photo: AFP|
2) See-through glass frogs
The skin of these nocturnal amphibians can be lime green or so translucent their organs are visible through their skin.
This has made them sought-after pets, and intense trafficking has placed the species in critical danger.
CITES also placed more than 160 species of glass frog, found in several rainforests in Central and South America, on its Appendix II, which places trade restrictions on threatened species.
The European Union and Canada withdrew early reservations about the resolution, which was adopted unanimously.
|Several broad-snouted caimans (Caiman latirostris) swim in a ditch that goes through the built-up area in the Tereirao shantytown in Recredo dos Bandeirantes, western Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 29, 2015. Photo: AFP|
3) Weird and wonderful turtles
CITES approved varying levels of protection for around 20 turtle species from America and Asia.
These include the striking matamata turtles, with their prehistoric, beetle-like appearance, which have also become sought-after pets and are hunted for their meat and eggs.
They live in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, but scientists do not know how many there are.
Freshwater turtles are among the most-trafficked species in the world.
The unusual-looking North American Alligator Snapping Turtle was also granted trade protection.
|Stacks of ivory and rhinoceros horns burn in Kenya in the world’s biggest ivory bonfire in 2016. Photo: AFP|
4) Crocodile bans lifted
Brazil and the Philippines now will be able to export farm-raised crocodiles, after a total trade ban was lifted.
Delegates also allowed the export of skin and meat of the broad-snouted caiman — found in the wild in the Brazilian Amazon and Pantanal as well as wetlands, rivers, and lakes of neighboring countries.
“The population of these animals is very big. There has been a great reproductive success,” said researcher Miryam Venegas-Anaya, a crocodile expert with the University of Panama.
In the Philippines, a trade restriction was lifted on the saltwater crocodile that lives mainly on the islands of Mindanao and Palawan.
However, Thailand’s efforts to lift a ban on its Siamese crocodile was rejected.
5) Ivory ban stays, no luck for hippos
Zimbabwe and its southern African neighbors have seen their elephant populations soar in recent years, and pushed a drive to re-open the ivory trade which has been banned since 1989.
One-off sales were allowed in 1999 and 2008 despite fierce opposition.
However, in the rest of the continent poaching for ivory is still decimating elephant populations and the request was rejected.
Delegates also rejected a request by Botswana, Namibia and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), to allow the sale of southern white rhino horn.
Meanwhile, after a fierce debate, a request by ten west African nations to ban the trade in hippopotamus, was rejected by delegates.
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