I don’t know if you’ve heard the news yet but NASA is launching an unusual mission: to punch an asteroid in the face.
As LiveScience reports, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to launch on Nov. 23. According to NASA, it could help figure out how to divert potentially lethal asteroids from impacting Earth.
DART will test an asteroid defense plan called the kinetic impactor technique — essentially, shooting one or more large spacecraft into the path of an oncoming asteroid in order to change the space rock’s motion. In this case, the target is a binary asteroid (two space rocks moving in tandem) called Didymos, which consists of one larger asteroid measuring about 2,600 feet (780 meters) in diameter and a smaller “moonlet” measuring about 525 feet (160 m) across.
If all goes to plan, the DART craft will crash into the moonlet’s surface at a speed of roughly 15,000 mph (24,000 km/h), obliterating the spacecraft on impact. This high-speed crash will barely phase the asteroid, causing it to lose a fraction of a percent of its velocity. Still, that minor alteration should slow the moonlet’s orbital period by several minutes, allowing astronomers to study the impact of the mission. A companion spacecraft operated by the Italian Space Agency, called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imagine Asteroids (LICIACube), will attempt to fly nearby and get an up-close look at the action.
NASA closely monitors all known near-Earth objects that could come within 1.3 astronomical units (1.3 times the distance between Earth and the sun) of our planet. So far, the agency has detected more than 8,000 near-Earth asteroids with a diameter greater than 460 feet (140 m) — or rocks large enough to wipe out an entire state if they were to land a direct hit on the U.S. At the moment, none of these objects poses a direct threat to Earth in the next century.
Nuking the Asteroid
An alternative technique involves nuking an asteroid. According to a new study reported in TweakTown, a new study has found that this may be ‘very effective’ at stopping its collision with Earth, thus preventing an apocalypse.
The researchers behind the study performed calculations on what Earth would need to do to save it from impact with an asteroid that’s 328 feet in diameter, which is around a fifth the size of the famous asteroid Bennu. The study found that a 1-megaton-yield nuclear bomb would be a “very effective” way of preventing a catastrophic impact. Researchers performed the simulation on five different asteroids and multiple time frames for impact.
According to the researchers, if an asteroid 328 feet in diameter was heading to Earth and we had just two months before its expected arrival, a nuke would be able to reduce the destruction it would cause to 0.1% of what it originally would have caused. Additionally, if a larger asteroid was on its way and Earth had six months to react, a nuke would still be able to reduce its impact mass to just 1%.
As physicist Patrick King from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland said:
We focused on studying ‘late’ disruptions, meaning that the impacting body is broken apart shortly before it impacts. When you have plenty of time – typically decade-long timescales – it is generally preferred that kinetic impactors are used to deflect the impacting body.
Fun times for Science Fiction writers, for sure!