NASA’s asteroid-busting spacecraft is just days away from hitting its target faster than a bullet

NASA’s asteroid-busting spacecraft is just days away from hitting its target faster than a bullet

It’s finally happening. After about a year of waiting around for NASA’s Dual Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), the mission will be launched Monday night, when the spacecraft is expected to crash into its target asteroid.

NASA said Thursday that the mission — the world’s first to test technology to defend the planet from potentially dangerous asteroids or comets — will hit its asteroid target at about 7:14 p.m. ET.

The spacecraft being tested will drop straight into the 525 foot moon, called Dimorphos, of the nearby asteroid Gemini. Dimorphos’ size is “more typical of the size of asteroids” that would likely pose a significant threat to Earth, NASA previously said. It’s a high-speed project with the spacecraft crashing into the asteroid at just 15,000 mph — faster than a bullet and fast enough to change the moon’s speed by a fraction of 1 percent, NASA said.

Neither Dimorphus nor Gemini pose a threat to Earth today. According to NASA, there is no known asteroid larger than 140 meters (459 feet) with a “significant chance” of hitting Earth in the next century. However, only about 40% of these asteroids have been found as of October 2021.

Illustration of how the DART impact will change Dimorph’s orbit for Gemini. Telescopes on Earth will be able to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit to assess the effectiveness of the DART impact.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

“We’re testing to see if you can hit an asteroid and have it change its trajectory in case we find an asteroid heading toward Earth,” Karen Fox, NASA’s senior science communications official, said Thursday.

Katherine Calvin, NASA’s chief scientist and senior climate adviser, said the agency looks at asteroids to better understand the history of the solar system and Earth, but also “to make sure we don’t get in their way.”

“Asteroid impacts have also had profound effects on Earth,” he said. “They’ve changed ecosystems and driven species to extinction. Dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them know what was coming, but we do, and so DART represents a major advance in understanding how to avoid potential dangers in the future and how to protect our planet from potential impacts.”

NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson said that while DART is an “exciting moment,” it is also monumental for “human history.”

“This demonstration is extremely important for our future here on Earth and life on Earth,” he said.

Telescopes on every continent on Earth, as well as the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, will observe the mission’s impact, said DART program scientist Tom Statler.

The agency will provide an update on the test at 6 p.m. on Monday and will host another after the impact at 8 p.m.

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