Why a NASA spacecraft will crash into an asteroid

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — In the first-of-its kind, save-the-world experiment, NASA is about to clobber a small, harmless asteroid millions of miles away.

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph. The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock — demonstrating that if a killer asteroid ever heads our way, we’d stand a fighting chance of diverting it.

Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, but it will take months to find out if it actually changed the orbit.

The $325 million planetary defense test began with Dart’s launch last fall.

The asteroid with the bull’s-eye on it is Dimorphos, about 7 million miles from Earth. It is actually the puny sidekick of a 2,500-foot asteroid named Didymos, Greek for twin. Discovered in 1996, Didymos is spinning so fast that scientists believe it flung off material that eventually formed a moonlet. Dimorphos — roughly 525 feet across — orbits its parent body at a distance of less than a mile.

“This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University, which is managing the effort. “This isn’t going to blow up the asteroid. It isn’t going to put it into lots of pieces.”

Rather, the impact will dig out a crater tens of yards in size and hurl some 2 million pounds of rocks and dirt into space.

NASA insists there’s a zero chance either asteroid will threaten Earth — now or in the future. That’s why the pair was picked.

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