NASA pushes ahead with asteroid deflection tests

Tiny spacecraft will strike an asteroid so we can learn how to cope with future threats.

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NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is moving ahead with plans to try out deflection techniques on a passing asteroid to prepare for future, threatening space matter.

The US space agency's latest mission, which will demonstrate the asteroid deflection technique, has now been promoted to the design phase.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, designed and managed by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, involves the creation of refrigerator-sized spacecraft "capable of deflecting asteroids and preventing them from colliding with Earth."

Moved to the preliminary design phase on June 23, refining DART's "kinetic impactor technique," ways to strike an asteroid in a way which makes it shift orbit rather than cause damage, is the key component of the project.

As we, thankfully, do not have a threatening asteroid to practice on, DART will instead focus on an asteroid which will have a distant approach to our planet in 2022 and 2024.

The asteroid, dubbed Didymos, is a twin asteroid comprising of two bodies. The first, Didymos A, is 780 meters in size and the smaller body, Didymos B, is orbiting the first and comes in at 160 meters.

DART would impact only Didymos B.

"A binary asteroid is the perfect natural laboratory for this test," said Tom Statler, program scientist for DART at NASA Headquarters. "The fact that Didymos B is in orbit around Didymos A makes it easier to see the results of the impact, and ensures that the experiment doesn't change the orbit of the pair around the sun."

After launch, the tiny spacecraft will fly to Didymos and strike the smaller asteroid at roughly 3.7 miles per second. While it will not be visible to the naked eye, scientists in observatories will record the event.

It is hoped that the test will show that by changing the trajectory of an asteroid by only a small fraction of its total velocity, this "small nudge" could, in the future, send an otherwise threatening asteroid away from Earth.

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"DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact," said Andy Cheng, DART co-leader. "Since we don't know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid."

"With DART, we can show how to protect Earth from an asteroid strike with a kinetic impactor by knocking the hazardous object into a different flight path that would not threaten the planet," Cheng added.

There is no guarantee that the plan to nudge the asteroid to a different trajectory will work. However, the project will help scientists understand more about how to tackle future issues with space debris and asteroids, and perhaps, this research will one day have to be put to use.

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