Quirks & Quarks

NASA is smashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to test a planetary defence system

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will deliberately smash a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it can be thrown off course.

The impactor is the size of a cow, and will hit an asteroid the size of two football fields

Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impacting the asteroid. (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

This week, NASA hopes to launch the first ever planetary defence test. The mission will deliberately crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if we have the ability to change its course.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission involves a spacecraft, weighing just 600 kg, that will head for a direct impact with one of the asteroids in a binary asteroid system. The system consists of one larger asteroid named Didymos, which is 780 metres across, and a smaller asteroid in orbit around Didymos, called Dimorphos, which is 160 metres wide.

The spacecraft is expected to impact Dimorphos around October 2022. It will hit the asteroid while travelling at 24,000 km/h, and the goal is to slow Dimorphos slightly so that its orbit around the larger object is altered by 10 minutes.

An animation showing the DART kinetic impactor approaching and impacting an asteroid. The binary system consists of Didymos, which is 780 metres across, and the smaller Dimorphos, which is 160 metres wide. (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

"This has not been done before at this scale. This will be the smallest object we've ever visited in space beyond our planet," said Derek Richardson, the Dynamics Working Group Lead on the DART mission. "This is why the test is needed, to see if we can pull this off." 

Richardson is also a professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland. You can listen to his full interview with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald at the link above.

Produced by Amanda Buckiewicz


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