NASA launches the DART spacecraft to crash into an asteroid. Could it save us from Armageddon?

NASA is launching an extraordinary mission on Wednesday to slightly throw an asteroid off course.

While it may sound like the plot of a sci-fi movie that ends in tragedy, this first real-world experiment is a safe bet, scientists say.

A golf cart-sized spacecraft will lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 10:20 p.m. PST on Tuesday, before spending 10 months on a collision course with an asteroid.

Here’s everything you need to know about the mission called DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test).

Why do we have to crash into an asteroid?

The asteroid, which will be off course, is six million miles away and now poses no threat to Earth, scientists say, adding the DART mission won’t make it a hazard either.

“First and foremost, these asteroids don’t pose a threat to Earth, they don’t pose a threat to Earth,” said Nancy Chabot, DART coordinator at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

“They’re not on track to hit Earth anytime soon. This makes them a suitable target for an initial test. But what makes these asteroids really ideal for this first test is that they are a dual asteroid system,” she said at a news conference.

While the asteroid and mission pose no threat to the planet, scientists want to see how its direction changes after it’s hit so we might know what to do to avert disaster if one day an asteroid crashes moving towards us.

“The DART mission is about demonstrating the deflection of an asteroid, changing its course and doing so by hitting it with a spacecraft,” said Andy Cheng, leader of the DART investigation team at the Applied Physics Laboratory Johns Hopkins University, during a press conference.

“So the DART spacecraft has to hit the asteroid, then DART has to measure the amount of deflection, and then we want to understand why this deflection happened, how it works. So it’s just a matter of measuring momentum transmission,” he added.

Scientists say this could help in the future.

What will happen on the mission?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch DART, which will fly to the asteroid Didymos, which orbits the Sun just outside Earth’s orbit.

DART will spend about 10 months traveling in the direction of the asteroid. But DART will crash into Didymos’ smaller asteroid called Dimophos at a speed of about 6.6 km/s.

In short, the spacecraft will aim for the larger asteroid to orient itself and in the last hour spot the smaller one and change course towards it.

Researchers will then be able to measure changes in the orbital relationship between Dimorphos and Didymos, which will help them calculate how these tactics could keep an asteroid from hitting Earth.

Could an asteroid hit Earth one day?

NASA has tracked almost every asteroid that could be big enough to damage Earth. But while there are no large asteroids that could change life as we know anytime soon, there are smaller ones that have yet to be found and have the potential to wipe out a city.

The DART mission could help prevent that.

“If someday an asteroid is spotted on a collision course with Earth — and we have an idea of ​​how big that asteroid is, how fast it’s coming and when it would hit, that kind of information — then we have this idea of ​​how.” much momentum we need to make this asteroid miss Earth,” Cheng said.

NASA says that while no known asteroid larger than 140 m in size has a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next 100 years, only about 40 percent of those asteroids have been found as of October 2021.

What happens after the mission?

In 2024, the European Space Agency is expected to launch another mission to travel to the two asteroids and observe the crater on Dimorphos and determine the asteroid’s mass.