Why NASA is trying to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid

Story by CBC Kids News • 2021-11-24 16:54

The asteroid is about 11 million km from Earth


It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie:

On Nov. 24 at 1:20 a.m. ET, NASA sent a rocket into space to smash into an asteroid.

The point of the mission is to see if it’s possible to move asteroids that are on track to collide with Earth.

The project, which is called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART mission, is the first of its kind.

It’ll be 10 months before we know whether the experiment has worked.

Pretty out-of-this-world science, right? Here's what you need to know about the project.

A simulation of NASA’s DART spacecraft hitting an asteroid. It will take around 10 months for the spacecraft to reach its target. (Image credit: NASA/John Hopkins APL)

How's it going to work?

NASA, which is the U.S. government agency responsible for space science and technology, launched the rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast.

The rocket’s target is an asteroid about 11 million kilometres away from Earth called Dimorphos.

An asteroid is a small rocky or metallic object that orbits — or circles around — the sun.

Dimorphos is around the size of a football stadium here on Earth.

The team behind the DART mission chose this asteroid because it’s around the same size as many of the asteroids closest to our planet.

NASA scientists hope that slamming a car-sized spaceship at 24,000 km/h into Dimorphos will be enough to take it off its course.

The rocket is scheduled to hit the asteroid around September or October, 2022.

This illustration shows the DART mission’s spaceship headed for its target: an asteroid called Dimorphos. As you can see in the picture, Dimorphos orbits around a larger asteroid. (Image credit: NASA/John Hopkins APL)

A mini-spacecraft with cameras mounted on it will be released from the rocket 10 days beforehand to record the collision.

Earth-based telescopes and radar systems will then measure how much the asteroid’s orbit moved, to see whether the experiment worked.

Why do we need this?

About 66 million years ago, most of Earth’s animal species were killed when a large asteroid struck the planet.

Don’t worry —  there isn’t one on its way to Earth in the foreseeable future.

“Despite what Hollywood movies may lead us to believe, the risk of a collision between an asteroid and Earth is extremely small,” said the Canadian Space Agency on its website.

Still, scientists say they want to be prepared, just in case.

Regular tracking of potentially dangerous asteroids is already happening.

NASA’s planetary defence officer Lindley Johnson said the key to avoiding a killer asteroid is detecting it well in advance and having a plan to change its course.

Is this a good idea?

John Spray, director of the Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said the space junk from the collision would be harmless.

“[The mission] is going to happen 11 million kilometres away, which is a long distance,” said Spray, “so any debris from that will not come any close to Earth.”

Overall, Spray said the DART mission is a good thing.

He agreed with having a plan in place for potential asteroid threats in the future.

We’ll have to wait until fall of 2022 to find out if NASA’s plan will work.

Have more questions? We'll do our best to look into it for you. Ask for permission from your parent or guardian and email us at cbckidsnews@cbc.ca.

With files from Thomson Reuters, Quirks and Quarks/CBC
TOP IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

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