Ever since mankind figured out how the Chicxulub asteroid impact pushed countless of species including all non-avaian dinosaurs into the jaws of extinction 66 million years ago, scientists have been brainstorming for ways to save the Earth from such catastrophic cosmic collisions in the future. NASA has been at the forefront of these efforts and the world’s most well-funded space agency has now announced that its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is entering the preliminary design phase.
DART is the crucial first step in implementing NASA’s asteroid deflection technique for planetary defence. So far the mission was in the concept development stage, with the design phase only beginning after NASA’s approval on June 23, 2017.
“DART would be NASA’s first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique — striking the asteroid to shift its orbit — to defend against a potential future asteroid impact,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defence officer at NASA.
“This approval step advances the project toward a historic test with a non-threatening small asteroid.”
The objective of DART is to deflect an asteroid that will pass by Earth’s orbit by some distance in October 2022, and then once again in 2024. The asteroid is named Didymos, Greek for Twin, because of it consists of a binary system of two bodies: Didymos A (about 780 meters in size) and Didymos B (160 meters). DART will target the smaller of the two, i.e. Didymos B.
Worth noting, while existing laws require the development of the DART mission, it is not specified as a budget item in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” said Andy Cheng of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the DART investigation co-lead.
“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.”