How NASA Plans to Prevent Asteroid Impacts With This Deflection Technique

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prevent asteroid impacts
"Planetoid crashing into primordial Earth" | Wikimedia Commons

NASA is now preparing to face one of the greatest threats to Earth’s existence–asteroid impact!

The end is nigh | Tumblr

Following NASA’s approval on June 23rd, the very first attempt to test an asteroid deflection technique has now moved from concept development to preliminary design phase. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will try to prevent asteroid impacts by knocking them off of their normal trajectories. The hope is that deflection will prevent the Earth’s annihilation from a significant asteroid impact.

On June 30, right after Asteroid Day–a global event which aims to raise awareness about the threats posed by massive space rocks to Earth–NASA announced its plan to target the asteroid Didymos.

#NASA prepares for its first-ever DART mission to deflect an asteroid.Click To Tweet

Didymos, which translates to “twin” in Greek, is an asteroid binary system that is consists of two bodies: Didymos A, about one-half mile (780 meters) in size, and a smaller asteroid orbiting it called Didymos B, about 530 feet (160 meters) in size.

Simulated image of the Didymos system, derived from photometric lightcurve and radar data
Simulated image of the Didymos system, derived from photometric lightcurve and radar data | NASA

The Didymos system has been carefully studied since 2013. The asteroid will have a distant approach to Earth in 2022, and then again in 2024. The plan is for the self-piloting DART spacecraft to hit Didymos B on its second approach in 2024. Tom Statler, a program scientist for DART at NASA Headquarters, said:

“A binary asteroid is the perfect natural laboratory for this test. 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.”

The Mission to Prevent Asteroid Impacts: Targeting Didymos B

After its launch, the refrigerator-sized DART spacecraft would fly to Didymos. From there, the spacecraft will use an on-board autonomous targeting system to aim itself at Didymos B. At that point, it would strike the smaller space rock at a speed about nine times faster than a bullet, approximately 3.7 miles or 6 kilometers per second.

Scientists from various Earth-based observatories would observe the impact and resulting change in the orbit of Didymos B around Didymos A. This asteroid deflection test will help scientists determine the capabilities of using kinetic impact as an asteroid mitigation strategy.

Whether or not you realize it, Earth is hit by small asteroids daily. Thanks to the Earth’s atmosphere, these space rocks are pulverized before they even hit the ground.

To prevent asteroid impacts on an even bigger scale is the real challenge.

NASA’s focus is on searching for Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that are larger than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter. The space agency deems these rocks as big enough to cause a global catastrophe. However, NASA claims that they have already found 93% of these NEOs.

DART would test technologies to deflect objects that are large enough to do regional damage, yet small enough to have gone undetected until someday when they are close enough to hit Earth. To save Earth from the possibility of an asteroid collision, NASA-funded telescopes and other assets continue to search space for large objects, track their orbit, and determine if they can cause potential harm to the planet.

In 2016, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) was established by NASA. The primary purpose of PDCO is to find, track, and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that are moving close to Earth. They issue warnings about possible impacts and help the U.S. government plan for actual impact threat.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is in charge of designing and building DART.  The Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama would oversee the project. Other teams supporting the DART mission include the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Do you think Earth stands a chance of surviving another asteroid collision in the future? What chance do we really have to prevent asteroid impacts?

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