Since November 2021, a NASA spacecraft the size of a vending machine has zipped through space on a never-before-attempted journey of self destruction to ram into a harmless asteroid.
Why, you ask? Well, the answer is: target practice.
NASA believes we have the technology to target, hit, and move asteroids. DART is a test of that capability and will prove humans can hit asteroids in the first place, as well as provide real data on the effects of those impacts. And the DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, is just a week away from landing its blow, crashing head on into Dimorphos, a 525-foot space rock zooming at 14,000 mph.
For the U.S. space agency, intentionally destroying this $330 million metal box is part of its first planetary defense mission - training for the day humans may need to stop an asteroid barreling toward Earth.
What exactly will engineers see from the mission operations center at a distance of 6.8 million miles from the crash? Perhaps more than you'd think, and NASA plans to share its front-row seat with the rest of the world.
Pictures from a camera, the only instrument on the spacecraft, will come back live before the collision. NASA plans to broadcast the mission starting at 6 p.m. ET on Monday 26 September and share the images publicly as DART beams them down, right up to the 7:14 p.m. impact. Just tune into NASA's YouTube channel.
But don't expect the hit to look like a planet obliterating in the sky, Armageddon-style, with glowing space ripples and chunks of rock blowing off, intermixed with close-ups of Bruce Willis' pained face. The spacecraft, at some 1,300 pounds, is going to give Dimorphos more of a nudge than a fatal blow - a type of strategy intended to push an asteroid off a collision course without creating a massive spray of debris that could be dangerous in its own right.
"Sometimes we describe it as running a golf cart into the Great Pyramid," said Nancy Chabot, who oversees the project at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. "This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption."
If the results are what scientists expect, it may also be the best money Earth has ever spent.
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