NASA to throw a dart to nudge an asteroid off course

Cop this. While many of the world’s leaders discuss saving the planet from destruction by man-made climate threats, NASA is preparing a mission to address extra-terrestrial threats, exploring whether asteroids headed this way could be deflected off course, thus missing the Earth.

Together with a number of other organisations, NASA is in the final stages of readying the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, in a launch window which commences on the 24th of next month. The actual target location comprises not one but two asteroids. The Didymos binary asteroid is made up of a primary body and a secondary “moonlet” which orbits around it.

NASA describes the mission as “a planetary defense-driven test of technologies for preventing an impact of Earth by a hazardous asteroid. DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space … While the Didymos primary body is approximately 780 meters across, its secondary body (or “moonlet”) is about 160-meters in size, which is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose the most likely significant threat to Earth. The Didymos binary is being intensely observed using telescopes on Earth to precisely measure its properties before DART arrives.”

I find this whole idea quite mind-blowing. Rocket science never ceases to amaze me; but it seems to me that this particular mission has the potential to open up a massive field of science-based experimentation and solutions. The DART spacecraft is tasked with altering the moonlet’s orbit by only a fraction of a degree, but in a real-world situation that would be quite enough to divert a threatening body onto a non-colliding course.

But think of the longer-term implications. If long-distance “nudging” could be engineered to steer asteroids and/or moonlets back towards Earth but on a safe trajectory, all kinds of geological and chemical resources could become available.

Why travel to far-off bodies if we can give them a carefully-calculated shove with a one-off ‘dart’ and bring them within more easy reach?



NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

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Filed under Science, space and astronomy

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