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NASA’s Asteroid-Smashing Spacecraft Could Save Earth

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    NASA is developing a spacecraft to pummel asteroids and knock them off a course for Earth.

    Following official approval from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the deflection approach is moving from concept development to preliminary design.

    The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, marks NASA’s “first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique”—strike the asteroid to shift its orbit.

    “This approval step advances the project toward an historic test with a non-threatening small asteroid,” Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA, said in a statement.

    Its first target: the asteroid Didymos (Greek for “twin”)—a binary system consisting of Didymos A (2,640 feet) and its orbiting Didymos B (530 feet) companion. DART would impact only the smaller of the two bodies.

    Under close inspection since 2003, the petite groupie is about the right size to do some real damage if it collided with Earth.

    “A binary asteroid is the perfect natural laboratory for this test,” Tom Statler, program scientist for DART at NASA, said.

    The fact that Didymos B orbits Didymos A makes it easier to see the results of this experiment, and ensures NASA won’t drastically change the trajectory of the pair around the sun, Statler added.

    Still in its early phases, DART will be built and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, Md.

    After launch, the refrigerator-sized craft will navigate to the asteroid system and use an onboard autonomous targeting system to aim itself at Didymos B. That’s when the fireworks start: DART strikes the planetoid at a speed nine times faster than a bullet—about 3.7 miles per second—jolting it ever so slightly off balance.

    Earth-based observatories can then see the impact and watch the change in orbit of Didymos B around Didymos A, allowing scientists to “better determine the capabilities of kinetic impact as an asteroid mitigation strategy,” according to NASA.

    “DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” said Andy Cheng, DART investigation co-lead at JHU APL.

    Small asteroids hit Earth almost daily, but most break and burn in the upper atmosphere, leaving no discernable traces on our world. Objects larger than 0.6 miles—like the Chelyabinsk meteor, caused by an approximately 22-yard near-Earth asteroid—can have devastating effects.

    “Since we don’t know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid,” Cheng explained. “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.”

    The project is under the thumb of Alabama’s Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, with support from teams at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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