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How Patrick Michael imagined an asteroid hitting the table of a Mexican restaurant

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“Who saw Don’t look up Here?, start Patrick Michael. Well, I’m no Leonardo DiCaprio, but the script of the film is what we tried to avoid from the Darth Hera mission. After observing live, he returned to France This asteroid impact from NASA Together with his colleagues at the end of September, the European coordinator of the Dart Hera collaboration gave his first impression goodIn front of many high school students.

” We did it ! For the first time, we deflected an asteroid from its path, using a self-guided autonomous probe to hit an object at a speed of 23,000 kilometers per hour, the size of which, initially, we know, 11 million kilometers of the Earth, without even knowing its shape. This is our expectations and Beyond”, he proudly exclaims with a broad smile that won’t leave him, according to the photos, after realizing this “extraordinary” success. The NASA probe is orbiting the 160-meter-diameter moon Dimorphos to change its orbit. “We expected to reduce its revolution time by 10 minutes, which actually 32 minutes,” he points out.

“It’s amazing”

In a room full of young students, the astrophysicist, science manager of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera mission, cannot hide his emotion and joy when talking about the experience. “When you’re in the operating room, for the first time, seeing images of a whole new world sent from this autonomous steerable probe, it’s incredible,” he shares. But before popularizing this science and the achievement achieved, Patrick Michael returned to the origins of this mission, following the request of NASA to create “a Planetary Defense Office”, “to anticipate the future”, he was born ten years ago.

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“In August 2011, in a Mexican restaurant, my colleague and I imagined how to do exactly this,” says a man who is also director of research at CNRS, an observatory on the Côte d’Azur. If the Hera spacecraft did not arrive at the same time as the Dart spacecraft, we drew on the table how to quickly measure the effects of the impact from Earth. Eleven years ago, in September 2022, we saw and calculated that this could be done in Dimorphos, so that the impact occurs as close to Earth as possible. »

He follows the final moments behind the scenes of the people working on this project and the final images obtained. “When we saw so much light after the impact, we said to ourselves: What have we done? ! We thought we had ruined it. The room alternates between laughter and applause.

Dimorphos asteroid hit by Dart mission. -AFP

Figuring out what happened is the job of the Hera probe from the European Space Agency, which will be maintained with “instruments from Japan”. The astronomer supports: “Internationally, we are in the process of proving that we can organize together to protect the planet from a danger that does not concern us now, because we have no identified threats, but we know that in the long term it will become a reality.

Make a plan for future generations

“It’s extraordinary to be able to meet such a person in your life,” enthused 15-year-old Evan, who attended Patrick Michel’s conference. He smiled and took videos throughout the presentation. “Then I also want to contribute to understanding the universe,” he said. Valentina and Sofia are passionate. They waited until after the conference to ask about his background. For them, “It is a very good idea to allow this meeting to the students”. “It makes you dream, and you have the impression that it’s accessible,” said one of the high school girls.

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For Patrick Michael, who took an hour of his time after the conference to answer all the young people’s questions, it was “just essential”. “One of the goals of this kind of mission is to scientifically learn about our solar system, but also to inspire young people with knowledge and an appetite for challenges,” he says. We know it very well that on earth, especially in climate, we face many difficulties. The idea is to offer future generations a plan so that they don’t have to improvise the day it comes to fruition. He adds: “In space, there are challenges that we cannot overcome, which we are able to overcome because we work with passion, perseverance and as a team, so if we apply the same method on Earth, we can meet the challenges in front of us. »

So the next step will be the launch of the Hera probe in 2024, reaching the asteroid by the end of 2026. “Nothing will change in four years, the scientist assures. We will be investigating for six months to find out what happened. Did we leave a crater? Why have we deviated from it so much? We need this to document this inspection and understand the situation. Still offering the public moments of dreams with incredible images of this object. It is full of scientific and technological challenges and surprises. Everything we love! »

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