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

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

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

The golf cart-sized spacecraft lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Tuesday at 10:20 p.m. .

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

Why do we need to crash into an asteroid?

The asteroid to be knocked off course is six million miles away and does not currently pose a threat to Earth, scientists say, adding that the DART mission will not make it dangerous either.

“First of all, these asteroids do not pose a threat to the Earth, they do not pose a danger to the Earth,” said Nancy Chabot, head of DART coordination at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“They are not on their way to Earth in the foreseeable future. This makes them a suitable target for the first test. But what really makes these asteroids perfect for this first test is that this is a binary asteroid system,” she said at a press conference.

Although the asteroid and the mission do not pose a threat to the planet, scientists want to see how its direction changes after the impact, so that if one day the asteroid moves towards us, we can know what to do to prevent disaster.

“DART’s mission is to demonstrate the deflection of an asteroid, change its course, and do so by colliding it with a spacecraft,” said Andy Cheng, head of the DART research team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory 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 has occurred, how it works. So it’s all about measuring momentum transfer,” he added.

Scientists say it could help in the future.

What will happen on the mission?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will carry DART into space, heading towards the asteroid Didymos, which is orbiting the Sun outside of Earth’s orbit.

DART will spend about 10 months on its way to the asteroid. But DART will crash into the smaller asteroid Didymos called Dimophos at a speed of about 6.6 km / s.

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

The researchers will then be able to measure changes in the orbital relationship between Dimorphos and Didymos, which will help them calculate how this tactic could prevent the asteroid from colliding with Earth.

Could an asteroid one day collide with Earth?

NASA has tracked almost every asteroid that could be large enough to wreak havoc on Earth. But while in the foreseeable future there will be no large asteroids that could change life as we know it, there are even smaller ones that have yet to be found and that could wipe out an entire city from the face of the earth.

The DART mission can help prevent this.

“If one day an asteroid is found moving on a collision course with the Earth – and we have an idea of ​​how big this asteroid is, how fast it is approaching, and when it will fall, such information – then we will have an idea of ​​how much momentum we need this asteroid to fly past Earth,” Cheng said.

NASA says that while no known asteroid larger than 140m has a significant chance of colliding with Earth within the next 100 years, as of October 2021, only about 40 percent of these asteroids have been discovered.

What happens after the mission?

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