Illustration showing the DART spacecraft and Italian agency's satellite just before impact. (Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)
In Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Iron Man proposed a way to keep the planet safe from outside invaders: “I see a suit of armor around the world.” That concept has some relevancy toward a new planetary defense strategy. NASA recently announced plans to move forward with a trial called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test that knocks any nearby asteroid away from Earth, reducing the risk of impact. The mission begins on November 24th at 1:20 a.m. EDT, launching a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. This is the first time the space agency will demonstrate its kinetic impactor technique, where high-speed spacecraft hurtles toward an asteroid to move it off course.
The agency is targeting Dimorphos, a 525-foot long moon orbiting an asteroid named Didymos. "The mission aims to shift an asteroid's orbit through kinetic impact – specifically, by impacting a spacecraft into the smaller member of the binary asteroid system Didymos to change its orbital speed," NASA said in a press release. NASA plans on using a 31-lb Italian satellite to record the test.
"Our #DARTMission, launching this November, will also be our first test for planetary defense," says a post on the NASA Asteroid Watch Twitter page. The event will be live on NASA TV, the agency's app, and the website.
NASA also stated that the impact takes place approximately 6.8 million miles away from Earth, posing no danger to humans. "The DART demonstration has been carefully designed," NASA explained. "The impulse of energy that DART delivers to the Didymos binary asteroid system is low and cannot disrupt the asteroid, and Didymos' orbit does not intersect Earth's at any point in current predictions."
"Furthermore, the change in Dimorphos's orbit is designed to bring its orbit closer to Didymos," they added. "The DART mission is a demonstration of capability to respond to a potential asteroid impact threat, should one ever be discovered."
Movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon suggest blowing up an asteroid that's speeding toward Earth. However, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a different idea in mind. He said that nobody knows exactly where the pieces will end up. He believes it's safer and more controlled if an asteroid is deflected out of harm's way instead. Then, other planets, moons, and bodies in the solar system could change the asteroid's path.
"We know that orbit with good enough precision that if we slam our spacecraft into the moon, it will alter that orbit, and it should alter it in a measurable way," said Dr. Tyson. "And if we succeed at that, it's like, oh, yes, now we have methods and tools to deflect asteroids that we may one day discover have our name on it."
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