NASA unveils plan to test asteroid defense technique

DART launch set for October 2022

By DAKIN ANDONE , CNN
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(CNN) - Humanity could face one less doomsday scenario if NASA has its way.

On Friday, the space agency announced plans to redirect the course of a small asteroid approaching Earth, as part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), according to a NASA press release.

The release notes that asteroids hit Earth nearly every day, but most are small enough to burn up in the atmosphere.

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But the DART project -- a joint effort between NASA and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland -- is for the asteroids that are too big to break up -- those that could have severe consequences for the Earth if they hit.

"DART would be NASA's first mission to demonstrate what's known as the kinetic impactor technique -- striking the asteroid to shift its orbit -- to defend against a potential future asteroid impact," said Lindley Johnson, NASA's planetary defense officer in Washington, in the press release.

"This approval step advances the project toward an historic test with a non-threatening small asteroid."

The target of the test is an asteroid system called Didymos, the release said. Didymos -- Greek for "twin" -- is a binary asteroid system, made up of one asteroid, Didymos A, and a smaller one, Didymos B, which orbits its larger neighbor.

In October 2022, as Didymos makes an approach near Earth, NASA will launch a refrigerator-sized spacecraft towards the asteroids, aimed at Didymos B, the release said. When the DART spacecraft and the asteroid collide, the spacecraft will be traveling at a staggering 3.7 miles per second.

"The kinetic impact technique works by changing the speed of a threatening asteroid by a small fraction of its total velocity," the release says, "but by doing it well before the predicted impact so that this small nudge will add up over time to a big shift of the asteroid's path away from Earth."

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Back home, scientists will study the impact and the effect is has on Didymos B's orbit around Didymos A, to determine whether this technique is a feasible method for saving the planet from asteroids that could otherwise have devastating impacts.

"DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact," said Andy Cheng, one of the leaders of the Johns Hopkins team. "With DART, we can show how to protect Earth from an asteroid strike with a kinetic impactor by knocking the hazardous object into a different flight path that would not threaten the planet."

The announcement coincided with International Asteroid Day, which commemorates the largest recorded asteroid impact in Earth's history, when in 1908 a meteorite hit Russia's Podkamennaya Tunguska River in a remote forest, leveling trees and knocking over people in a town 40 miles away.

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