NASA and SpaceX have joined efforts in a bid to derail a giant asteroid from its orbit, testing in the process NASA’s ability to save the Earth from cataclysm.
NASA has employed the rocket-launch services of SpaceX for a daring asteroid redirection test in 2021. The critical mission will see SpaceX’s signature Falcon 9 rocket launch a NASA spacecraft towards a binary asteroid system 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth. The asteroid mission is dubbed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART for short. NASA hopes DART will prove to be a successful way of protecting Earth from deep space dangers.
NASA said in a statement: “NASA has selected SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, the first-ever mission to demonstrate the capability to deflect an asteroid by colliding a spacecraft with it at high speed – a technique known as a kinetic impactor.”
The target of NASA’s mission is the distant binary system of Didymos.
Didymos is composed of a larger asteroid, Didymos A, orbited by a smaller asteroid moon, Didymos B.
The larger of the two space rocks measures an impressive 2,624ft (800m) in diameter.
The smaller Didymos asteroid only measures around 492ft (150m), which makes it a perfect target for impact.
If successful, DART will shift Didymos B’s orbit by as little as one percent but the change in direction will be enough to be observable from Earth.
This is important because NASA can use this method of asteroid deflection to redirect any rogue space rock headed for Earth.
Even an initially small change in an asteroid’s trajectory will result in the rock veering significantly off course over long distances.
The first stage of the mission will kick off in the summer of 2021 but DART will not reach Didymos until 2022.
After DART has boosted into space onboard a SpaceX rocket, the spacecraft will use electric propulsion engines to reach Didymos.
And when the spacecraft finally reaches the asteroid, DART will slam into Didymos B at a speed of around 13,421mph or six km per second.
NASA said: “The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, enough to be measured using telescopes on Earth.”
NASA has pegged the overall cost of the mission at around 52.6million ($69million).
The cost includes all SpaceX launch services and mission-related costs.
DART will blast off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
NASA said: “NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service.”