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NASA is crashing a rocket into an asteroid on purpose

November 23, 2021, 6:17 PM UTC

In a mission straight out of a sci-fi movie, NASA is set to launch a spacecraft Tuesday night that will deliberately slam into a moving asteroid.

Scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will be on track to hit an asteroid more than 6 million miles away. Scientists are hoping to observe how impact of the rocket will change the space rock’s trajectory.

If the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission proves successful, it’ll provide insight into how scientists might be able to redirect future asteroids, especially those that pose a more direct danger to our planet. 

“If one day an asteroid is discovered on a collision course with Earth, then we will have an idea how much momentum we need to make that asteroid miss the Earth,” Andy Cheng, DART investigation team lead, told CNN.

Although this particular asteroid’s size and distance prevents it from being an Armageddon-level threat to the planet, this week’s launch is the first of NASA’s planetary defense efforts to understand how to prevent the worst-case scenarios on Earth. The DART mission will send its spacecraft toward two asteroids called Didymos and Dimorphos. The smaller of the two, Dimorphos, will be hit by the golf-cart sized rocket moving at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour. 

But if you’re hoping to watch the asteroid get hit anytime soon, you may need to be more patient. NASA’s spacecraft is expected to strike Dimorphos in the autumn of 2022. 

Global space organizations are following in NASA’s efforts to figure out the most effective way to prevent a potentially catastrophic asteroid from hitting earth. The European Space Agency will be sending its own mission in 2024 to observe the crater on Dimorphos from DART. 

Scientists have only identified around 40% of small objects in space, including asteroids, that have the potential to devastate a city. NASA plans on continuing to search for and identify objects close to Earth that might be a threat. 

“Although there isn’t a currently known asteroid that’s on an impact course with the Earth,” NASA’s planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson told NPR, “we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there.”

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