A harmless asteroid millions of miles away is about to be hit by a NASA spacecraft at 14,000mph. Why? The fate of humanity may one day depend on doing so.
Scientists say it’s been 66 million years since an asteroid hit Earth, ending the era of dinosaur domination, and they want to avoid a similar end for humanity.
Sky News review NASA’s Latest Experiment – a $325m (£301m) planetary defense test – and answers some key questions about how it could prove useful.
What is the Dart spaceship?
Dart – a more understandable moniker is the Dual Asteroid Redirection Test – is essentially a pounding ram the size of a small vending machine.
It faces certain destruction in the realization of its goal.
The dart weighs 570kg and has a single tool: a camera that is used to navigate, identify the target and record its ultimate history.
Where will the spaceship go?
Dart is heading for a pair of asteroids about seven million miles from Earth. Its target is called Dimorphos, which is the younger child of Didymos (Greek for twin).
Dimorphos is about 525 feet (160 meters) across, and it orbits the much larger Didymos at a distance of less than a mile (1.2km).
NASA insists it’s unlikely that an asteroid will threaten Earth – now or in the future. That’s why the pair was chosen.
The spacecraft’s navigation was designed to distinguish between the two asteroids and for the last 50 minutes, targeted the smaller asteroid.
What happens on collision?
“This is really about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University, which is managing the effort.
“This won’t blow up the asteroid. It won’t break it into pieces.”
Instead, the impact will dig out a meter-sized crater and throw about two million pounds of rock and dirt into space.
Why do scientists do this?
The impact was just enough to push the asteroid into a slightly narrower orbit around its companion space rock – proving that if a killer asteroid were to come our way, we’d have a good chance of winning. fight to redirect it.
Cameras and telescopes will monitor the crash, but it will take months to find out if it actually changed its orbit.
Observatories will monitor the pair of asteroids as they orbit the sun, to see if Dart alters Dimorphos’ orbit.
In 2024, a European spacecraft called Hera will record Dart’s journey to measure the outcome of the collision.
According to Ms. Chabot, although the push is intended to only change the position of the moonlet slightly, it will make a big difference over time.
“So if you’re going to do this to protect the planet, you’re going to do it five, 10, 15, 20 years ahead of time for this technique to work,” she said.