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Spacecraft launches to deflect an asteroid in planetary defense mission

Posted at 7:10 PM, Nov 24, 2021

The world’s first full-scale planetary defense test is in motion. The mission is called DART and what scientists learn from it could save humankind from a future catastrophic event. Nancy Chabot is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“DART is a NASA mission to demonstrate deflecting an asteroid, moving an asteroid in space by purposely crashing a spacecraft into it,” Chabot said.

She says there aren’t any asteroids that are a threat to Earth in the foreseeable future, but these are the first steps in case humans need to deflect an asteroid in the distant future.

“Definitely want to make sure we don't go the way of the dinosaurs,” Chabot said.

DART, which stands for Double Asteroid Redirect Test, is on a 10-month flight to hit an asteroid system orbiting the sun. It launched from California Tuesday night.

“There's Didymos, it's about 780 meters or half a mile, and there's Dimorphos, which is a little moon and it goes around it every 11 hours 55 minutes like clockwork and DART is going to come in really fast at fifteen thousand miles per hour, and it's going to slam into an Dimorphos that little moon," Chabot said. "And it's going to just deflect slightly how the moon goes around that larger asteroid by about one percent.”

Chabot says the spacecraft is about 100 times smaller than the little moon – like a golf cart hitting something the size of a sports stadium— just enough to change its course. Jay McMahon is a professor in the Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He’s a participating scientist in the mission

"Our job is to model how that orbit will change and evolve over the coming years after the DART mission,” McMahon said.

McMahon says he and his grad students will be assessing the impact of the crash.

"If we ever had to push an asteroid to get it out of the way of the Earth, we wouldn't want to push it in a way that it would just come back sometime later, right? We'd want to push it and make sure it keeps going away," he said.

There’s still a lot to learn about the movement of asteroids.

“They're smaller and so different dynamics happen and they can kind of drift around being pushed around by interactions with the planets or actually interactions with sunlight can heat them up and cause them to move around," McMahon said. "And so that over time, that can push them so that they would drift across the Earth's orbit.”

And if that does happen, we’ll have the innovative technology to save the planet.

“Lots of people have brought up the movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon, you know, where we're trying to defend the Earth from an asteroid," McMahon said. "And I mean, we're really trying to do that in a realistic way in this mission. And it's testing all sorts of exciting new technology, which is really cool from an engineering perspective. And then from a science perspective, you know, getting to go see a binary asteroid up close to something that we haven't done.”