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SpaceX is sending a spacecraft to ram into an asteroid

SpaceX is sending a spacecraft to ram into an asteroid
August 21, 2023

A few weeks back, Musk’s SpaceX claimed yet another victory. The aerospace giant successfully launched one of NASA’s most interesting missions – DART. 

DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. And just as the name implies, the mission is to send a spacecraft to ram into an asteroid. The physicists call it a “kinetic impact.”  We can think of this as the world’s first test of a planetary defense system. 

The goal is to see if a spacecraft that collides with an asteroid can materially alter its trajectory. This mission is targeting the asteroid called Dimorphos. It’s orbiting a much larger asteroid called Didymos about 6.8 million miles away from Earth.  Here’s a visual:

The spacecraft, which is about the size of a car, will target the smaller asteroid Dimorphos. The goal is to determine if the collision will affect the orbit of both Dimorphos and the larger Didymos.  

And here’s the thing – the spacecraft doesn’t need to have some kind of outsized, explosive impact. If it can just affect the asteroids’ trajectory by a few inches, that would demonstrate that this kind of spacecraft could be used to successfully alter the course of an asteroid. 

If there were a genuine threat to Earth, the key is to affect the asteroid’s trajectory when it is still at far distances from Earth. A relatively small kinetic impact that adjusts the trajectory of an object could potentially push the trajectory off by hundreds of thousands of miles by the time the object nears Earth.  The spacecraft will reach the asteroids in September, and we’ll get early results shortly after the collision occurs. 

From there, the European Space Association plans to send out another spacecraft to inspect the asteroids and do a more detailed analysis of the kinetic impact.  So right now it’s just a waiting game, but DART is on the way. I know that it might feel like an asteroid collision with Earth is the last thing we have to worry about right now, but they’ve happened before, and they’ll happen again. And as we know, they can be cataclysmic.   

If this works, it will be very comforting to know that we have a reasonably good chance of protecting our planet from any asteroids large enough to present a threat. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that this could quite literally save the world.

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