In an effort to change its trajectory, NASA is preparing to crash a spacecraft with an asteroid about the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The study, which is a component of NASA’s Planetary Defense mission, aims to determine whether the technique may be applied in the event of an asteroid heading straight for Earth.
On Monday, September 26, at 7:14 p.m. EDT, asteroid Dimorphos will make its closest approach to Earth, triggering the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The vending machine-sized spacecraft, which launched in November 2021, will autonomously find its path to impact and be completely Bruce Willis-free, in contrast to most major asteroid flicks.
Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will meticulously monitor how long it takes for moonlet Dimorphos to orbit its parent asteroid Didymos before and after collision in order to gauge the impact of the $330 million mission. The asteroid will finish its circle faster if the collision at 24,100 kilometers per hour (15,000 miles per hour) was successful. For just this reason, the Lowell Discovery Telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona, has been keeping a close eye on the orbital path of Dimorphos.
According to astronomer Nick Moskovitz of the Lowell Observatory, “the before-and-after nature of this experiment needs exquisite knowledge of the asteroid system before we do anything to it.” We want to be certain that any change we observe is totally attributable to what DART did rather than saying, “Oh, here’s something we hadn’t thought about or phenomenon we hadn’t considered,” at the last minute.
The team needs to be certain that the orbit has been changed by the impact itself and not by other factors like the Sun heating one side of the asteroid, which can change the trajectory of the object to the point where it has been suggested that we could spray-paint an asteroid that was headed our way.
NASA expects that DART will enable them to “analyze how best to use it in future planetary defense scenarios” and allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of ramming spacecraft into potentially dangerous asteroids.
If the test is successful and a planet-killer asteroid (or smaller) is discovered to be traveling towards Earth, there is a possibility that we may have to Bruce Willis it out of the way at some point in the future.