NASA Just Launched a Spacecraft to Crash Into an Asteroid and Change Its Trajectory

This is Armageddon without a crew and we will have live footage too.
Ameya Paleja
Illustration of the DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system.NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has successfully completed the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, CNN reported

The mission was launched aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at 1:21 am ET from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The target of the mission is a small moon, Dimorphos which is 525 feet (160 m) in diameter, orbiting a near-Earth asteroid called Didymos. The mission is expected to crash in September 2022.  

According to numbers released by NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), there are over 27,000 asteroids that humankind knows of, whose orbits are close to that of the Earth. Of these, a little over 2,200 are classified as "potentially hazardous." Although none of these are currently headed towards Earth, it just takes one rock to destroy a city and even eliminate a species in a moment. 

As a means of planetary defense, NASA and other space agencies have been thinking about developing ways to counter such a calamity, if it were to arise with a warning someday. As a trial experiment, they have now launched the DART mission. 

The asteroid's moon was selected as a target for the mission since its size resembles the potentially hazardous asteroids. By themselves, Dimorphos and Didymos aren't a threat to Earth. By September of 2022, the 'twins' will be relatively closer to Earth, at the distance of six million miles (11 million km), CNN reported.

The spacecraft that is supposed to crash into the moon itself will be traveling at a speed of 15,000 miles (~24,000 km) an hour but unlike the movie will not smither it to pieces. Why? Because Michael Bay is not the director of the mission.  

Getting back to science, the spacecraft is about one-hundredth the size of the moon. Even at its high speed, it won't have the momentum to break the celestial body apart. More importantly, that's not how science works. By breaking the object or drastically changing its trajectory, scientists could have created a potential threat like the Russian experiment recently did. 

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Instead, the crash of the spacecraft will only result in a gentle nudge to the moon, changing its orbit by just one percent. If successful, the orbit of the asteroid's moon will change by 73 seconds, long enough for it to be noticed by Earth-based telescopes. 

For those seeking Armageddon-like action, there is something in store though. The spacecraft has an onboard camera called Didymos Reconnaissance & Asteroid Camera or DRACO, that will aid in detecting the asteroid's moon and crashing into it. On its first deep-space mission is the Italian Space Agency's brief-case-sized Cubesat called Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids or LICIACube. For the most part of its journey,  LICIACube will piggyback on DART and be deployed just before impact. It will then do a flyby past Dimorphos and make observations. All pictures and videos taken during the mission will be beamed back to Earth. 

The main objective of the DART mission is to understand how much momentum is needed to change the trajectory of an asteroid. So, if tomorrow one comes Earth's way, our response will be to give it a gentle nudge and not nuke it. 

Update: 4:51 am ET: Mission details were added.

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