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Technology to save the world? Spacecraft being launched from Central Coast to test ability to deflect asteroids away from Earth

Image Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben
Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s LICIA Cube approaching the Didymos system asteroids.

Team is testing for the first time the concept that hitting an asteroid with a spacecraft could modify the asteroid's orbit.

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. Scientists are going to launch a spacecraft to hit an asteroid, and change its orbit slightly so it won't hit Earth.

But, the technology to actually stop an Earth-bound asteroid has been theory up until now. That could change with a space mission set to kick off from the Central Coast Tuesday night.

"We are now days away from the launch of humanity's first ever attempt to deflect an asteroid for planetary defense," said Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division.

Glaze says a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a spacecraft known as DART is set to lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base at 10:21 p.m. Tuesday.

If all goes well, DART will smash into a small asteroid next fall, with the idea that the impact will make a slight change in its orbit.

DART Pre-Vibration Test walkdown
Photo Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman
Team members conduct a pre-vibration test walkdown on the DART spacecraft.

DART Program Scientist Tom Statler says the craft is headed towards an asteroid which has a smaller asteroid moonlet orbiting it. The smaller one of the duo is the target. He emphasizes that the moonlet doesn’t pose any type of a threat to Earth, and this is strictly a test.

"Didymos, which is the destination for the DART spacecraft, is on an orbit which swings far from the Earth, out into the asteroid belt, and then comes close to the Earth, but not enough to be a danger," said Statler.

Statler says Didymos has a small asteroid moonlet called Dimorphos, which is the actual target. It's about the size of a football field.

The concept isn’t to try to destroy it. DART is only equipped with a camera. But, it would impact the moonlet at a speed of roughly 15,000 miles an hour, and the idea is that would create a slight change in its orbit.

If it works, the strategy might be used to deflect an asteroid which actually poses a threat.

The DART craft has onboard technology which will autonomously guide it in the final hour before impact. The response time to command from earth would be too long. Also, before DART hits it will deploy a tiny cube satellite, to get a second perspective of the impact as well as the after effects.

Researchers are hoping the mission will provide key data on whether the concept works. They say it could tell us how big a craft would need to be to deflect a real threat, as well as how soon it would need to happen to safely change an asteroid’s orbit.

Weather permitting, the Tuesday night launch should be visible throughout much of the Central and South Coasts.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.