Government agencies are finally taking seriously the threat posed by potential asteroid impacts. Surprise near-miss asteroids, official asteroid preparedness plans, and predictions of future encounters have been in the news with regular occurrence lately, and for good reason. Space agencies track tens of thousands of space rocks hurtling through the solar system all around us, while most of us here on Earth are oblivious to the dangers looming above our heads. Aside from collaborating with other federal agencies on what to do in the event of a strike, NASA has finally decided to test an asteroid redirect technology straight from the pages of science fiction.
The test is being called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, and is slated to take place in 2024. The test gets its name from the fact that the particular asteroid to be redirected is part of a binary system of asteroids, a one-two punch of deadly space projectiles. The system is known as Didymos, composed of Didymos A and Didymos B. Didymos A, the larger of the two, measures in at around 2,560 feet (780 metres) in diameter, while the smaller Didymos B is only about 525 feet (160 meters) in diameter – still plenty to wipe out significant portions of the human population.
During the DART test, NASA will fire a refrigerator-sized “kinetic impactor” projectile at Didymos A intended to knock it slightly off its trajectory. Since the asteroid has a ‘twin,’ NASA scientists will have a control against which they can measure the efficacy of the DART spacecraft.
One of the DART team leaders, Andy Cheng, says the test will be the first experiment to determine how viable such a planet-saving maneuver might be in the event that we are faced with a do-or-die scenario:
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.
Let’s just hope we don’t need to save the planet before 2024.