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NASA to Test DART System This Week

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The experimental asteroid-buster will have its first test flight on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, NASA concocted a hypothesis in response to that age-old, Hollywood-backed question: what would the world do in response to the looming threat of an asteroid the size of Oregon? A Bruce Willis-piloted mission to plant a bomb on it, perhaps? Nope. The answer is… punch it. With a rocket. Thus was the conceptualization of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or “DART” for short.

This week, Tuesday in fact, the DART vessel will be launching off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. As opposed to completely destroying an asteroid with explosives, a process which could potentially rain hazardous shards upon the Earth, the goal of the golf cart-sized DART vessel is to strike an asteroid with just enough force to alter its trajectory and orbit, ideally away from a hypothetical Earth.

“A lot of times when I tell people that NASA is actually doing this mission, they kind of don’t believe it at first, maybe because it has been the thing of movies,” Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told NPR.

“DART is demonstrating asteroid deflection. It is absolutely not asteroid disruption, which is how it goes a lot of times in the movies,” Chabot added.

The DART vessel’s target is the asteroid Dimorphos, a target about ten months of travel away. Dimorphos doesn’t pose any imminent threat to the Earth, though its orbit around its sibling asteroid Didymos makes it a good test target. The DART vessel is projected to strike Dimorphos at about 15,000 miles per hour, with controllers back on Earth monitoring the asteroid’s orbit to see if it worked. It’ll be a slow, tense process, but if it works, it could be a viable means of defense against space debris.