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NASA to launch spacecraft that will crash into asteroid in the hopes of changing its orbit

Posted at 11:45 AM, Oct 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-11 11:52:37-04

In a mission that evokes images of the 1998 film "Armageddon," NASA next month will launch a spacecraft that it plans to deliberately crash into a near-Earth asteroid in the hopes of testing planetary defense systems.

On Nov. 24, a SpaceX rocket will launch from California, marking the start of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission. That rocket will be carrying the DART spacecraft, which will crash into a small 525-foot diameter asteroid named Dimorphos in September 2022.

The asteroid that NASA is targeting isn't supposed to travel within a million miles of Earth. But scientists hope the test will offer valuable insights to develop a defense system that they can deploy in case of emergency.

NASA is targeting a near-Earth binary asteroid system discovered by scientists about 20 years ago. According to CNN, the system — located nearly 7 million miles away from Earth — includes a half-mile wide asteroid named Didymos, and Dimorphos — its smaller asteroid moon.

After nearly a year of traveling in outer space, NASA says DART will reach the asteroid system. At that point, the craft will use a camera — nicknamed DRACO — to autonomously navigate the spacecraft into Dimorphos at nearly 15,000 mph.

"The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of 1%, but this will change the orbital period of the moonlet by several minutes — enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth," NASA said.

The test marks the first time that NASA will attempt the "kinetic impactor technique" — using a spacecraft to bump an asteroid off its path. The data collected in the test will help NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office — which finds and tracks near-Earth objects in space — in developing systems that can be deployed in case of emergency.

Though it's extremely rare for large near-Earth objects to enter the atmosphere, they often come close. According to NASA, nearly 900 asteroids have been discovered within 1,000 kilometers of Earth since 1980.