The feds have approved a plan crafted by Johns Hopkins astrophysicists to send a tiny spaceship crashing into an asteroid in 2022.
As we’ve pointed out before, the idea is right out of the sci-fi section: Design a spaceship to blast straight into a large piece of rock hurtling through space to throw off its path and save the Earth. It’s fool-proof.
To reckon with this future threat, a team from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab has been working for years on a sturdy design for the job. Today the lab announced NASA gave the design its go-ahead on June 23, which means the project can move from concept development to the preliminary design stage. The mission would be NASA’s first-ever physical asteroid impact study.
Don’t fear, humans: This asteroid isn’t very large at all. The team is trying out the spaceship-attack approach on Didymos B, a 530-foot-wide space rock that’s approaching in October 2022.
By the APL team’s design, a spaceship called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will travel to Didymos, a two-asteroid system comprising Didymos B and a bigger sister asteroid. DART will then release a refrigerator-sized autonomous spaceship to launch toward Didymos B, traveling about nine times as fast as a bullet. Scientists looking in from here on Earth will be watching the impact and hopefully will be able to determine whether the nudge is enough to change the path of an oncoming asteroid.
Here’s a cartoony video diagram of the plan from NASA:
The APL’s Andy Cheng and Andy Rivkin are leading the project from the Laurel-based lab. “DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” Cheng explained in a statement. “Since we don’t know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid.”
Just so you know, NASA says asteroids regularly plummet toward the Earth, usually breaking up in the upper atmosphere. There are five approaching our planet just this week, according to the agency’s Asteroid Watch.