Although they are dealing with asteroids, not comets like in the movie, NASA has announced the beginning design phase for its Double Asteroid Redirect Test or Dart) mission.
Scheduled to have its first test run in 2022, the DART’s first target is a pair of asteroids called Didymos A and B. Neither asteroid is set to destroy Earth completely, but they would make a sizeable impact with dramatic results near the crash site. To prevent this, NASA will send the refrigerator sized DART spacecraft, at a speed of 3.7 miles per second, to Didymos B, the smaller of the two asteroids that orbit Didymos A.
Ultimately, the goal is to change the asteroid’s velocity with the impact of the collision between DART and Didymos B.
“A binary asteroid is the perfect natural laboratory for this test,” said DART program scientist Tom Statler. “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.”
A unique feature of the DART craft is its autonomous targeting system, which allows it to aim itself at the object that needs to be diverted.
After the collision, scientist watching from Earth will analyze the shift in the orbit of Didymos B to see if it was shifted enough to avoid any type of planetary impact. If successful, then DART can be used again, targeting itself at the next nearest, moderate sized asteroid.
“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” said Andy Cheng, one of the leaders of the team collaborating with NASA to develop DART from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “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.”
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