NASA Will Crash $330M Spacecraft Into Asteroid to See if the Impact Can Alter Course
More asteroid strikes are coming.
Don't panic. But in the coming weeks, NASA plans to purposely crash a $330 million robot spacecraft into an asteroid. The goal: To see if that's a reliable method to divert an asteroid that's hurtling toward earth. Which this one is not. But the DART mission (for double asteroid redirection test) has space experts agog anyway; it's the first test of its kind and has attracted a range of international partners. And you can watch it when it happens—read on to find out when and how.
The spacecraft DART was launched last November. It's scheduled to strike the asteroid Dimorphous on Sept. 27. The half-ton craft will be traveling at more than four miles a second when it strikes its target. The collision is projected to change Dimorphous's orbit by 1%—enough to prevent a theoretical asteroid strike on earth.
Scientists will be studying DART's orbit and the collision—if it happens as planned—to determine if the spacecraft can prevent a catastrophic asteroid strike. You know, like the one in the movie Armageddon. Or the one that struck the earth tens of millions of years ago, destroying three-quarters of all animals and plants alive. Keep reading to see the video.
"We know asteroids have hit us in the past," Alan Fitzsimmons, a professor of astronomy at Queen's University Belfast, told The Guardian this week. "These impacts are a natural process and they are going to happen in the future. We would like to stop the worst of them. "The problem is that we have never tested the technology which will be needed to do that. That is the purpose of DART."
Seconded Lindley Johnson, NASA's planetary defense officer: "We don't want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to be testing this kind of capability."
Dimorphos is about 525 miles wide and sits 6.6 million miles above earth, and experts at NASA picked it for the test for specific reasons. (Again, it poses no real threat to earth.) "DART's target has been carefully chosen," said Jay Tate, director of the National Near Earth Objects Information Center in the UK. "Dimorphos actually orbits another, bigger asteroid called Didymos, and the extent of the deflection caused by the crash will be easier to detect as astronomers have been carefully observing its path around the bigger asteroid."
So is this happening for an, um, urgent reason? How likely is it that the earth will field a catastrophic strike by an asteroid? Not very, say experts.
"We know where the big asteroids are because we can see them with our current generation of telescopes, and we know none of the detected asteroids are coming anywhere near our planet for the next couple of hundred years or so. So we can rest easy in our beds about those ones," says Fitzsimmons.
"However, many smaller ones have yet to be detected, and they are still big enough to destroy entire cities and devastate large areas. We are mapping these smaller objects with increasing accuracy, but we will have to be prepared to act if we find one that is on course for Earth. DART is the first step in ensuring we have the right technology to deal with the threat."
"It's such an exciting mission," Andy Cheng, lead investigator of DART, said last November. "It's unbelievable."