NASA plans to test one potential way to prevent asteroid impacts on Earth: ramming the space rock to change its orbit. This concept, which has been detailed multiple times over the years, will take place in 2022 and involve the space agency’s DART spacecraft. Details were revealed by the European Space Agency, which plans its own mission to the same asteroid.
According to the ESA, its Hera mission will be the first to explore a binary asteroid system, the Didymos and its smaller companion, Didymoon. The space rock is only about 525ft across, making it “minuscule” in comparison to other asteroids. To help put it in perspective, the Bennu asteroid explored by NASA is approximately 1,640ft across.
NASA’s own mission to Didymoon will take place first, with the DART spacecraft impact scheduled for 2022. The goal is to alter the small asteroid’s orbit around its larger asteroid sibling, which will help test whether deflecting asteroids in this manner is even possible.
The small size and brief orbit will aid researchers in measuring the degree to which the asteroid’s orbit was altered. ESA will join the effort with its Hera mission in 2026, when it plans to survey both asteroids and get data otherwise unavailable from Earth.
This will include learning about Didymoon’s nature — its surface properties, mass, and the crater DART’s impact left behind. The information will be key to future impact models that could be used for other future impact missions like this. According to the ESA, Didymoon is the exact type of asteroid that could potentially cause massive damage to our planet — it’s too small to easily track but large enough to make an impact instead of burning up in the atmosphere.