Nasa has enlisted Elon Musk to help with its mission to save Earth from doomsday space rocks.
The space agency is currently working on a scheme called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which is aimed at discovering how to redirect asteroids.
It’s hoped that the project will allow Nasa to work out how to steer space objects onto a new trajectory.
When mastered, this technique could save millions or even billions of lives if an asteroid is seen to be on a collision course with Earth, because it will allow Nasa to simply push it onto a course which misses the planet rather than colliding with it.
It’s called the double asteroid test because there’s a smaller orbiting body (called a ‘moonlet’) moving around it.
The moonlet is about 150m wide and Nasa plans to hit the smaller object when the two of them are about 11 million km from Earth. The idea is that the smaller body and Didymos itself will be deflected onto a new trajectory by the impact.
It’s basically a game of galactic snooker.
Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and project scientist for the DART team, told Space.com: ‘Planetary defence is really about the present solar system and what are we going to do in the present.
‘It’s interesting, because it’s a space mission, but the telescopes are such a huge, important part of the mission succeeding. We have to know where this moon is in order to impact it, to make this maximum deflection.
‘We kind of take for granted that we know where everything is at all times. We understand where the system is as a whole, but specifically where that moon’s gonna be [requires tracking] because we want to try to hit it head-on.
‘To do something like this, we’d also need a really long warning time; the idea of a kinetic impactor is definitely not like [the film] ‘Armageddon,’ where you go up at the last hour and you know, save the Earth.’
‘This is something that you would do five, 10, 15, 20 years in advance – gently nudge the asteroid so it just sails merrily on its way and doesn’t impact the Earth.’
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