What happens if an asteroid heads toward Earth? NASA has a plan, and it involves a crash




There won't be any Bruce Willis or Aerosmith, but NASA is getting ready to do something similar to the hit 1998 sci-fi thriller "Armageddon:" crash into an asteroid.

Aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will leave the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California no earlier than 10 p.m. local time on Nov. 23, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will depart into space in hopes of determining "if intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to change its course."

"It's such an exciting mission," Andy Cheng, lead investigator of DART, told reporters on Thursday. "It's unbelievable."

The target asteroid is named Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid named Didymos. Didymos is around half a mile long, while Dimorphos is 520 feet long.

Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system.
Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system.  

Didymos' orbit around the sun comes relatively close to our planet, making it a Near-Earth object. In 2003, it came around 4.5 million miles close to Earth. However, the two asteroids were picked by NASA because they say they poses no real threat to Earth.

Elena Adams, an engineer for DART, said the system has been in development for the past five years. If the launch gets delayed later in November, the team has a window to launch by Feb. 15, 2022.

Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer for NASA, said the total cost of the mission, from its inception to the year-long observations after the impact, will cost NASA around $330 million.

If the November launch goes according to plan, the DART spacecraft will embark on a nearly yearlong journey to the asteroids at roughly 15,000 miles per hour, and is expected to approach them around Sept. 26-Oct. 1, 2022. The DART system is significantly smaller than Dimorphos, and unlike in "Armageddon," the plan isn't to completely destroy it, but rather "give it a small nudge."

Nancy Chabot, lead coordinator for DART, said giving Dimorphos a nudge will affect its orbit around Didymos by about 1%. That may seem small, but if an asteroid were to head toward Earth, the technology used could make all the difference.

"You would just give this asteroid a small nudge, which would add up to a big change in its future position, and then the asteroid and Earth wouldn't be on the collision course," Chabot said.

There are many questions NASA hopes will be answered by the impact, such as how much momentum is needed to nudge an asteroid, how fast will it move after the impact, if debris will go in multiple directions and if the material the asteroid is made up of matters. A camera will be deployed by the spacecraft before impact to provide visuals of the mission, and scientists will be able to see the effects of it through telescopes.

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The team that spoke with the media on Thursday reiterated there are no threats of an asteroid that could cause significant damage in the immediate future, and that this is all about being prepared.

"We don't want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to be testing this kind of capability. We want to know about both how the spacecraft works and what the reaction will be by the asteroid to the impact before we ever get in a situation like that," Johnson said.

Currently, there are over 27,000 Near-Earth objects in our solar system, 891 of which are at least the same size as Didymos, according to NASA. In order for an asteroid or comet to be considered a Near-Earth object, it needs to come within 120.8 million miles of our planet.

Johnson said the reason to do this now is in case of an object that has never been detected suddenly approaches Earth. Until that happens, NASA plans do to additional tests like this one in the future.

"We might be testing other techniques or other ways to possibly deflect an asteroid," he said.

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA plans to crash into asteroid near Earth, like in movie Armageddon

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