Sep 26, 2022 - Science

NASA is about to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid

Artist's illustration of a spacecraft circling a pair of asteroids

Artist's illustration of the DART mission. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

NASA is set to slam a spacecraft into a little asteroid on Monday evening in an attempt to redirect it.

Why it matters: The first-of-it-kind mission — called DART — marks the first true test of whether or not NASA will one day be able to push a potentially dangerous asteroid off a collision course with Earth if the need should ever arise.

  • "It's quite frankly the first time that we are able to demonstrate that we have not only the knowledge of the hazards posed by these asteroids and comets that are left over from the formation of the solar system, but also have the technology that we could deflect one from a course inbound to impact the Earth," Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA, said during a press conference last week.

What's happening: DART's target is Dimorphos, an asteroid moonlet circling the larger asteroid Didymos. (Neither of these asteroids pose a threat to Earth.)

  • The probe is expected to collide with Dimorphos at 7:14pm ET on Monday. (You can watch it live on NASA TV here.)
  • Scientists will use other telescopes to measure just how much the impact throws off Dimorphos' orbit around Didymos. The Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope will also keep eyes on the system to see if they can observe the impact.
  • Mission managers should receive photos from the impactor as it makes its approach to Dimorphos up until it hits the asteroid.

The big picture: So far, city or planet destroying asteroids on collision courses with Earth have been relegated to blockbuster films.

  • But it's possible one of those large space rocks could one day be found heading toward our planet.
  • NASA's DART mission will provide key data to scientists and engineers about how to potentially scale up the technology to deflect an asteroid if it's ever needed.
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