On Tuesday, NASA launched a mission to deliberately crash a spacecraft into an asteroid. The experiment could one day prevent a giant space rock from wiping out humanity on Earth. It may sound like science fiction, but the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is real.
The spacecraft successfully lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Its target is Dimorphos, a moon, about 160 meters (two statues of Liberty) wide, that surrounds the asteroid Didymos (780 meters in diameter). Together, they form a system that orbits the Sun.
“Asteroid Dimorphos, we’re coming for you!” NASA wrote on its official Twitter account after launch. The aerospace agency live streamed the launch on its YouTube channel. Like SpaceX.
Why does NASA crash a spacecraft into an asteroid?
NASA is crashing the DART spacecraft into an asteroid to test, for the first time, a planetary defense method that could one day save a city, or perhaps the entire planet, from a catastrophic asteroid impact.
DART “is kind of a rerun of the Bruce Willis movie, ‘Armageddon,’ even though it was totally fictional,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
If all goes according to plan with DART, NASA will have a confirmed weapon in its planetary defense arsenal. If a different asteroid were ever to end up on a collision course with Earth, the world’s space agencies would be confident that an asteroid missile like DART would deflect the space rock.
How will NASA’s mission work?
The DART impact between September 26 and October 1, 2022, when the pair of rocks meet 11 million kilometers from Earth, the closest point they can get to.
DART, which is a box with the volume of a large refrigerator and limousine-sized solar panels on each side, will crash into Dimorphos at just over 15,000 miles per hour, causing a small change in the asteroid’s motion.
It should be noted that asteroids do not pose any threat to our planet, but are part of the Near Earth Objects (NEO), which come within 50 million kilometers of our planet.
NASA is more interested in bodies that are larger than 140 meters, since these have the destructive potential to destroy cities or regions with an energy several times that of normal nuclear bombs.