NASA is about to launch a real-life Armageddon mission to stop an asteroid heading towards Earth.
Once upon a (fictional) time, Bruce Willis and his squad of Earth’s mightiest drilling heroes set off into the great unknown to drop a bomb into a massive asteroid and blow it up before it obliterated the planet.
In 1998, it was an outrageous fantasy. However, the frightening reality is space rocks fly above us all the time, some of them big enough to wipe us out. It’s time for the next step in ‘planetary defence’; NASA is shooting for the moon, literally.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is set to launch tomorrow, November 23. The un-crewed spacecraft will take off onboard a SpaceX rocket on a 10-month collision course with a small moon named Dimorphos, believed to be 530ft wide, orbiting the much larger Didymos, cruising through space at 2,600ft wide.
Here’s the plan: the spacecraft, said to be the around the size of a ‘golf buggy’, will hit Dimorphos at around 15,000mph. It’s hoped this will impact the moon’s speed and orbit, if only marginally.
‘It’s all about measuring the momentum transfer: How much momentum do we put into the asteroid by hitting it with the spacecraft?’ Andy Cheng, lead investigator for the mission at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, told Bloomberg.
DART will use a combination of laser targeting and high-resolution technologies to choose where it’ll impact the asteroid, as researchers on Earth keep track via images sent from the spacecraft.
‘This test is to demonstrate that this technology is mature enough so that it would be ready if an actual asteroid impact threat were detected,’ Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defence officer, earlier said.
However, while it’s been described as perhaps ‘one of the most consequential missions ever undertaken by NASA’, there’s nothing to worry about just yet. For the past 15 years, NASA has been keeping tabs on particularly alarming asteroids – the ones that’d see us befall a fate similar to the dinosaurs, for example – and reporting them to Congress.
‘While no known asteroid larger than 140 metres in size has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years, less than half of the estimated 25,000 [near-Earth objects] that are 140 metres and larger in size have been found to date,’ the space agency said.
Should DART be successful, NASA already has a number of other trajectory-altering plans in the pipeline. This includes a ‘gravity tractor’, which would see a small spacecraft attached to an asteroid and change its orbit by enlarging its mass.
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