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NASA’s new planetary defence system faces field trials

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NASA has announced that its first-ever asteroid deflection mission has progressed to the next design phase. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is as the name suggests, an asteroid deflection technique that is set to become a world-first planetary defence system. Using revolutionary technology known as kinetic impaction, the DART will strike asteroids in order to shift its orbit.

The current phase it is entering will help NASA scientists determine if this technology could work in the field after testing it out extensively in simulations. It will be used to shift the path of a small, incoming asteroid named Didymos B, which orbits the larger Didymos A. Both are expected to approach Earth twice, the first time being in 2022 before returning again in 2024. The smaller Didymos is roughly 530 feet (160 meters) in size and will be a lot easier for DART to handle than Didymos A, which is a hefty one-half mile (780 meters).

large asteroid illustration
large asteroid illustration

Of course, prior to this field experiment, DART will have to be deployed into space, however, no launch date or operational data is currently available. The current school of thought dictates that the system will be launched a short time prior to the arrival of the Didymos asteroids. After its’ arrival into space, it is expected to make a beeline straight towards the smaller asteroid and slam into it at approximately nine times the speed of a bullet in an effort to shift it out of its’ orbit.

Animation showing DART system asteroid deflection; Credits: NASA/JHUAPL

The impact will be seen and recorded by NASA scientists on Earth who will be able to determine if their new kinetic impaction technology can stand up to the test, as Andy Cheng of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the DART investigation co-lead explains in the NASA press release:

“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact. Since we don’t know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid. 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.”

It is estimated that asteroids hit Earth daily, granted most are very small and burn up in the atmosphere prior to impact, but the threat of a major asteroid strike has been somewhat overblown. NASA currently monitors space at all time and has a catalogue of potential asteroid threats, most of which will not come close enough to Earth to create any type of damage. However, if the need does arise for a new planetary defence system to come into play, we can rest assured that NASA’s DART will be able to save us from the plight endured by the dinosaurs!

What are the odds are of an extinction-level asteroid hit?

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