NASA Just Sent a Spacecraft to Knock an Asteroid off Course

Because there’s some chance that an asteroid could hit Earth, and because sending a team of oil drillers to blow it up would be patently ludicrous, NASA is working on ways to defend our planet from the space rocks. In fact, the space agency has just sent a DART spacecraft to shove an asteroid slightly off its course. Not to actually protect Earth from an imminent threat, however. But rather to see if the method is even feasible.

NPR reported on NASA’s planetary defense craft launch into space, which was possible thanks to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft is at the heart of the NASA and John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) joint venture, DART. DART, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, aims to test whether or not it’s possible to deliberately collide a spacecraft at high speed with an asteroid in order to change the latter’s course.

In a press release Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, noted that this is a “kinetic impactor” technique. But while the name’s simple enough, the mission is anything but. “This technique is…the most technologically mature approach for mitigating a potentially hazardous asteroid,” Johnson said in the press release. “[I]t will help planetary defense experts refine asteroid kinetic impactor computer models, giving insight into how we could deflect potentially dangerous near-Earth objects in the future,” she added.

A visualization of the DART spacecraft about to perform a shove maneuver on an asteroid in space.
NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

The DART spacecraft has now begun a year-long journey to the small moonlet asteroid, Dimorphos. Dimorphos—derived from the Greek word Dimorphos, meaning “having two forms”—orbits a larger companion asteroid called Didymos and has a diameter of approximately 525 feet. When the DART spacecraft arrives at Dimorphos, it will impact the asteroid head-on; decreasing the time it takes the asteroid moonlet to orbit Didymos by several minutes. At least hopefully, anyway.

“We have not yet found any significant asteroid impact threat to Earth, but we continue to search for that sizable population we know is still to be found,” Johnson added in another NASA release. “[But our] goal is to find any possible impact, years to decades in advance, so it can be deflected with a capability like DART that is possible with the technology we currently have.”

As for the actual launch? SpaceX nailed it. Immediately above is a clip showing the moment the aerospace company’s rocket launched. Not only did the two-stage-to-orbit rocket deliver DART to space, but its first stage landed on a SpaceX drone ship, an incredible feat that marks the 95th time the company’s landed a first stage. Congratulations to them. Although in fairness, there was one single hiccup. Deadline Hollywood reports that NASA really wanted Bruce Willis at the launch as a way to honor the sentiment of Armageddon. Because if DART or oil drillers can’t save us from asteroids, maybe celebrities can? We feel very safe.

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