NASA wants to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to protect Earth

NASA asteroid

June 30, was Asteroid Day, during which events around the world raised awareness about the threat of near-Earth objects. The message was clear — there are a lot of asteroids out there, most of which we don’t know about, and some of them could wipe out cities. The founders of Asteroid Day have vowed to ramp up the discovery of asteroids to 100,000 per year over the next 10 years, in hopes that we will be able to spot the big one before it strikes, and NASA has its own interest in this issue.

But cataloging asteroids is just the first step. What do we do if we spot a big one barreling toward Earth?

NASA has an idea and it joined with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission. The American agency just approved a move from the concept phase to preliminary design.

AIDA has two proposed components: ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) and NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The mission entails crashing the DART probe into “Didymoon,” the smaller asteroid in a binary system, with the hope that the collision would alter the asteroid’s speed and demonstrate that an asteroid can be nudged off its trajectory.

Although ESA denied funding to AIM last year in favor of its ExoMars mission, NASA has now decided to move forward with DART independently.

“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” Andy Cheng, co-lead of the DART investigation, said in a statement.

Asteroids hit Earth constantly but we’re rarely struck by one big enough to do any serious damage. When such an impact does occur — as it did in 2013 when a meteor injured 1,500 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia — it’s a sudden reminder of the threat.

Astronaut Tom Jones thinks it’s worth prioritizing projects like AIDA, given the unique opportunity to test these planetary defense technologies on an asteroid that doesn’t pose a threat.

“I would say it’s worth taking one-sixtieth of NASA’s fund the US component of the AIDA mission,” he told Digital Trends. “Postponing activity at Mars for a couple years is a good trade for completing an opportunity with AIM and DART to take advantage of this unique opportunity to hit and deflect this small asteroid, Didymos. If we miss this we’ll have to find another nice target down the road.”

The mission is planned to rendezvous with Didymos in 2024, when the asteroid will pass by Earth. The development of DART is being built and managed by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.