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Why Is NASA Crashing a Spacecraft Into an Asteroid?

NASA plans to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid in the “world’s first planetary defense test mission” of its kind. Although the plan might sound like the basis of a science fiction disaster movie, it’s not.

NASA
(TNS) — NASA plans to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid in the “world’s first planetary defense test mission” of its kind.

Although the plan might sound like the basis of a science fiction disaster movie, it’s not.

The spacecraft will travel around 6.8 million miles away to strike the asteroid and try to change its direction, according to a news release from NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test team.

It is scheduled to launch at 10:20 p.m. PST on Tuesday, Nov. 23 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The mission’s purpose is to “help NASA prepare for asteroids that might one day pose a threat to Earth,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, told McClatchy News in an emailed statement.

The target asteroid is called Dimorphos, which orbits a larger one called Didymos. Both flying space rocks pose zero threat to Earth.

“The right time to deflect an asteroid is as far away from the Earth as we can,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, told NPR.

Almost 20 years ago, it was discovered that Didymos had its own moon that was later named Dimorphos, according to NASA.

Dimorphos will be hit with a “kinetic impact” to prove that the DART spacecraft can navigate itself unmanned to the asteroid and “kinetically impact it” to “change its orbit,” the release said.

The technique is believed to be the “most technologically mature approach for mitigating a potentially hazardous asteroid,” Johnson said in a statement.

It will give “insight into how we could deflect potentially dangerous near-Earth objects in the future,” she said.

After the asteroid is struck, telescopes on Earth will measure the effects the collision has on the asteroid system to “enhance modeling and predictive capabilities” when dealing with a potential asteroid threat, according to the release.

“The DART mission is just one example how NASA turns science fiction to science fact, all while benefiting humanity and protecting the planet,” Nelson said.

Over the past year and a half, the spacecraft was built by engineers and contains an onboard camera.

“DART has gone from a twinkle in the eye to a spacecraft in final preparation for launch within 11 years,” Andy Cheng, DART’s lead investigator who came up with the idea of DART, said in a statement.

The DART team wants to show that a catastrophic asteroid could be thwarted if one ever heads toward Earth.

The mission is being managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, according to the release.

“I’m especially grateful to the teams that have been working day in and day out to achieve mission success, many of whom will be spending Thanksgiving away from their families,” Nelson said.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office was created in January/ 2016 to detect potentially hazardous objects — like asteroids or comets — that could damage Earth.

The office coordinates U.S. government planning in regards to the threat of an impact from space.

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