NASA has been long interested in the potential risks an asteroid collision might pose to Earth. The incident in Russia from 2013 when a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk caused significant damages to the buildings and the shockwave injured almost 1,500 people. Fortunately, no one was killed.
The NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office is in charge of detecting and studying potentially hazardous asteroids. They believe that a potential impact with the Earth is absolutely possible.
The DART Mission
With this aim in mind, NASA is now designing a missile capable of changing an asteroid’s orbit enough to avoid collision with Earth. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test is currently in the preliminary design phase. If NASA manages to build the missile, tests will be conducted on an asteroid that will approach our planet in 2022. The asteroid named Didymos B is not a threat to Earth but a perfect test subject. DART co-investigator Andy Cheng explains that Didymos B is part of an asteroid binary system. Therefore, if the missile deflects Didymos B, it will change its orbit around Didymos A. Scientists will then be able to measure the effects of the deflection safely.
Cheng goes on to explain that once the missile is sent into space, it’s going to use a long-range telescope to lock on to Didymos B. Then the missile can ram into the asteroid at a speed of six kilometers per second.
The Mission as a Long Term Investment
Currently, there are no known asteroids that pose any threat on our planet. However, Cheng believes that the DART mission comes at a modest price compared to the disaster a collision might create.
To put it in perspective, the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office conducts activities that cost between $35 million to $45 million per year. For 2017, the development of the DART mission raised the costs to $60 million.
If we’re talking about something like that over a metropolitan area, you’re talking many billions of dollars of damage and potentially millions of casualties. So we are really talking about a major disaster that’s being averted here.
Image Source: NASA JPL