It seems like something out of a science fiction movie - scientists launching a rocket to deflect an asteroid. But while it might seem out of this world, that is exactly what scientists are aiming to do with a new spacecraft launching Tuesday night from Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Thankfully, the asteroid in question is not headed Earth's way but will prove useful to scientists preparing for the future of planetary defense.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is a test a full decade in the making to find out if we can change the course of an asteroid enough to keep Earth safe if one ever wanders close enough to do harm.
One of the minds behind this project is Terik Daly, a Deputy Instrument Scientist for DRACO, the camera system on DART.
“DART is a demonstration of technology we could use to deflect an asteroid if, one day, we find one that's on a collision course with the Earth,” Daly explained.
The project started over a decade ago and is now a collaboration between NASA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, SpaceX, and Vandenberg Space Force Base. They are all working together to take the next step in planetary defense.
Day and night, we search the skies for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth. But what if we found one? @JHUAPL’s Justyna Surowiec helps tell the story of #DARTMission, our first test of planetary defense: https://t.co/hiAfCp3qrp pic.twitter.com/0mbGzPOmHx— NASA (@NASA) November 23, 2021
“The asteroid or comet impact is one of the only potentially preventable natural disasters. If you could prevent a forest fire or prevent an earthquake, you'd want to learn how to do that. Here we have the potential to prevent an asteroid impact that could cause devastation across a regional area, and that is a wonderful tool to have in our toolbox if someday we need it,” Daly said.
As of right now, NASA doesn’t know of any dangerous asteroids that will impact Earth in the next century, but not all potentially damaging asteroids have been identified.
☄️ What do we know about the asteroids & comets in Earth's neighborhood? Planetary defense — which includes finding, tracking, & characterizing these near-Earth objects — is part of our mission. Here's what we've found so far.— NASA 360 (@NASA360) November 1, 2021
Learn more: https://t.co/m0ecjCXxGZ pic.twitter.com/i0gaI8KIpL
“If we find an asteroid on a collision course, the Earth will know about it and can do something about it,” Daly explained.
While intentionally crashing a spacecraft may seem strange, Daly explained that is exactly what they are doing.
“So we are taking a spacecraft and slamming it into an asteroid. It's an intentional crash of a spacecraft,” he said.
Perched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, DART will begin a 9-month journey to hit Dimorphos, an asteroid 163 meters across.
The @SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the DART spacecraft is vertical on the launch pad at @SLDelta30 in California! Launch is scheduled for Nov. 24 at 1:21am ET (Nov. 23 at 10:21pm PT) #DARTMission #PlanetaryDefense More 📷: https://t.co/iU5MOJDHCI pic.twitter.com/Ik7YhHa0be— NASA HQ PHOTO (@nasahqphoto) November 23, 2021
The mission will utilize self-steering technology in the last four hours of the mission. This will allow the spacecraft to hit the asteroid while operating autonomously.
“We are launching a spacecraft that's going to drive itself to an asteroid the size of the Washington Monument. The spacecraft is about the size of a large cow and so the visual you should have - it is a cow that's driving itself into the Washington Monument at 15,000 miles an hour,” Daly explained.
In the moments before crashing, DART will use its DRACO camera to send back high-definition photos of the asteroid surface for analysis. Those photos will help give detailed information about the collision surface and how that will impact the orbit change caused by the mission.
Years in the making, this mission is the first of its kind, Daly said.
"This will be the world's first test of the technology we could use to prevent an asteroid impact.”
Takeoff is scheduled for 10:21 p.m. Tuesday night from Vandenberg Space Force Base. You can watch live on NASA TV or on Facebook. We will also have the live stream on our website and we will be monitoring take off during our 10 p.m. newscast Tuesday night.