- NASA launched a spacecraft on Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and check whether it would be possible to knock a speeding space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.
- The DART technique could help alter the course of asteroid years or decades before it bears down on Earth for catastrophe.
NASA launched a spacecraft on Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and check whether it would be possible to knock a speeding space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.
Short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the DART spacecraft lifted out from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in a $330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon.”
If everything goes well, in September 2022, it will slam head-on into Dimorphos, an asteroid 525 feet across, at 15,000 mph ).
“This isn’t going to destroy the asteroid. It’s just going to give it a little nudge,” said Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project.
Dimorphos orbits a much more giant asteroid known as Didymos. The pair are not dangerous to Earth but allow scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.
Dimorphos completes one orbit of Didymos in every 11 hours, 55 minutes.
Telescopes on Earth will measure the difference in the orbital period. The minimum charge for the mission to be considered a success is 73 seconds.
The DART technique could help alter the course of asteroid years or decades before it bears down on Earth for catastrophe.
A slight nudge “would add up to a big change in its future position, and then the asteroid and the Earth would not be on a collision course,” Chabot said.
Scientists constantly search for asteroids and plant their courses to determine whether they can hit the planet.
“Although there is not a known asteroid that’s on an impact course with the Earth, we do know that there is a huge population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA.
“The key to planetary Defence is finding them good before they are an impact threat.” DART will take ten months to reach the asteroid. The collision would occur about 6.8 million miles from Earth.
10 days before, DART will release a tiny observation spacecraft supplied by the Italian space agency that will follow it.
DART will take video until it is damaged on impact. 3 minutes later, the trailing craft will make images of the impact site and ejected material.
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