Test drive of planetary defense system aims to provide data on how to deflect asteroids away from Earth
That’s one large rock, one momentous shift in our relationship with space. On Wednesday, Nasa will launch a mission to deliberately slam a spacecraft into an asteroid to try to alter its orbit – the first time humanity has tried to interfere in the gravitational dance of the solar system. The aim is to test drive a planetary defence system that could prevent us from going the same way as the dinosaurs, providing the first real data about what it would take to deflect an Armageddon-inducing asteroid away from Earth.
Our planet is constantly being bombarded with small pieces of debris, but these are usually burned or broken up long before they hit the ground. Once in a while, however, something large enough to do significant damage hits the ground. About 66m years ago, one such collision is thought to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs, ejecting vast amounts of dust and debris into the upper atmosphere, which obscured the sun and caused food chains to collapse. Someday, something similar could call time on humanity’s reign – unless we can find a way to deflect it.
Nasa’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) mission is the first attempt to test if such asteroid deflection is a realistic strategy: investigating whether a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it, as well as measuring the amount of deflection.
“This is the first step to actually trial a way of preventing near-Earth object impact,” said Jay Tate, the director of the National Near Earth Objects Information Centre in Knighton in Powys, Wales. “If it works, it would be a big deal, because it would prove that we have the technical capability of protecting ourselves.”
The 610kg Dart spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at about 6.21am UK time on Wednesday. Its target is the Didymos system – a harmless pair of asteroids consisting of a 163-metre “moonlet” asteroid called Dimorphos that orbits a larger 780-metre asteroid called Didymos – after the Greek for “twin”).
About 10 days before impact, a miniaturised satellite called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), will separate from the main spacecraft, enabling images of the impact to be relayed back to Earth. Combined with observations from ground-based telescopes, and an onboard camera that will capture the final moments before collision, these recordings should enable scientists to calculate the degree to which the impact has altered Dimorphos’s orbit.