SEP 14, 2021 7:29 AM PDT

NASA is Planning to Shoot a Spacecraft Into an Asteroid

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

NASA can detect asteroids, so there's been plenty of speculation about what might happen if we discover an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. Such an event has the potential to set off cataclysmic events, from what we know about the extinction of the dinosaurs and our limited experience with asteroid impacts. But now, it seems that NASA is actually going to test out whether it's possible to divert the trajectory of an asteroid by hitting it with something. At some point between late November 2021 and February 2022, the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission will begin.

DART will aim a spacecraft the size of a car at an asteroid the size of a stadium, called Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. These asteroids are very far away; it's estimated that the spacecraft will take a year to reach the asteroid, at which point it's supposed to smash into it at 6.5 kilometers per second. The idea is to alter the Dimorphos' orbit around Didymos; the current time is about twelve hours and DART will hopefully change it by a few minutes.

Five years from now, the European Space Agency's Hera mission will see if DART was successful. In that effort, the ESA will try to land two spacecraft on these asteroids. But that would be more complicated, but not necessarily impossible, if DART sends the asteroid into a crazy spin.

An analysis reported in the journal Icarus revealed that such a spin could happen. Though the orbital changes to Dimorphos have been analyzed, less is known about how the impact could change Dimorphos itself. When researchers modeled the impact, they found that Dimorphos could potentially begin tumbling chaotically. Tumbling can also alter the path of an asteroid.

The force of the impact is expected to be massive, but probably won't immediately change how Dimorphos spins. Within a few days, however, reverberations from the collision could cause the asteroid to start a small wobble that grows with time. Without friction to slow it down, it might start swinging wildly. The shape of Dimporphos and where on the asteroid the impact occurs could both also have a big influence on how it rolls.

The only way we'll know for sure what has happened is when the Hera mission arrives; Dimorphos cannot be seen with detail from Earth.

If the DART mission works, it means that we may be able to prevent an asteroid from colliding with Earth if we have a long time to act. Either way, NASA and ESA researchers stand to learn a lot from this experiment, and this mission does not pose any threat to the Earth.

“We’re doing this to have the ability to prevent a truly catastrophic natural disaster,” Tom Statler, DART program scientist at NASA headquarters told MIT Technology Review.

Sources: Icarus, MIT Technology Review

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
MAR 31, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Were These the First Structures in the Universe?
MAR 31, 2021
Were These the First Structures in the Universe?
It's been theorized that our Universe started as a hot, incredibly dense point that exploded in the Big Bang. It's thoug ...
APR 11, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Celebrating the International Day of Human Space Flight
APR 11, 2021
Celebrating the International Day of Human Space Flight
Earth's first satellite, Sputnik I, was launched into orbit on October 4, 1957. A few years later, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagari ...
MAY 16, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Measuring the Natural Illumination in the Night Sky
MAY 16, 2021
Measuring the Natural Illumination in the Night Sky
It may get dark at night, but there's still light in the sky in even the darkest places. This low glow comes from natura ...
MAY 21, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Alien Radioactive Element Discovered on Earth for First Time
MAY 21, 2021
Alien Radioactive Element Discovered on Earth for First Time
  Researchers from Australian National University have discovered the first ever extraterrestrial radioactive isoto ...
JUN 01, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Curiosity Captures Shimmering Martian Clouds
JUN 01, 2021
Curiosity Captures Shimmering Martian Clouds
Mars has a thin atmosphere without much humidity, making cloudy days rare. But clouds can be found sometimes near the Ma ...
JUL 19, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Hubble Space Telescope Back from the Brink; In Working Condition after Hardware Swap
JUL 19, 2021
Hubble Space Telescope Back from the Brink; In Working Condition after Hardware Swap
After a month-long hiatus from its routine scientific operations, 31-year-old Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is back in wo ...
Loading Comments...