NASA is about to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test will be traveling at more than 14,000 miles per hour when it hits the asteroid, in what has to be one of the most metal science experiments of all time. 

 DART is a NASA effort to see if it can change an asteroid’s movement in space. As the tiny moonlet orbits the bigger asteroid, it passes between the bigger asteroid and Earth. 

This means that telescopes both on and off-world can monitor the system and see relatively quickly what a crash does to Dimorphos’ speed and trajectory.

Soon after the impact, telescopes on every continent on the planet will focus on the system to see the aftermath.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble, and even the asteroid-bound Lucy spacecraft will also train their gaze on the asteroid system, waiting to see what happens when rock meets a hard spacecraft.

DART is demonstrating what we call the kinetic impact technique for changing the speed of the asteroid in space and therefore changing its orbit Johnson said.

There are other options in the planetary defense toolbox, including a ‘gravity tractor,’ a spacecraft that could fly next to an asteroid, gently pulling it to a safer path.

There’s also the possibility of firing an ion beam at an asteroid for a long time, pushing it to a different orbit.

There will be about 44 people in a control room watching telemetry and data, but starting about four hours before impact, said Elena Adams, the DART mission engineer. 

It has a smart navigation system on board. It spotted Didymos earlier this summer, but it won’t be able to see Dimorphos, the actual target, until about an hour before impact. 

It’s not every day that scientists get to crash a $250 million spacecraft, as Adams told The Verge last November, ahead of DART’s launch.

In addition, a small companion spacecraft will be documenting the action in space. The Italian LICIACube launched with DART and separated from the larger spacecraft on September 11th.

Hitting the asteroid, the next part is actually measuring what happens afterward, Adams said. The team expects the asteroid to run faster after the collision and will be tracking that over time. 

It’s not going to keep necessarily the same time, said Tom Statler, DART’s program scientist.