NASA is to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid at 24,000kmh in its first ever “planetary defence” test to see whether it will be able to prevent potentially cataclysmic future collisions.
he mission will assess whether it is possible to divert an incoming celestial body and avoid a mass extinction event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and most life on Earth, 66 million years ago.
If successful, it will be the first time humans have altered the path of a non-Earth object in the solar system, although the asteroid being targeted is not threatening our planet.
Scientists have already identified at least 26,000 “near-Earth objects”.
Of these, there are estimated to be 4,700 which meet Nasa’s classification as “Potentially Hazardous Objects,” meaning they are larger than 150 metres across, pass within 72. million kilometres of the planet, and would cause devastating damage if they hit.
Nasa’s mission mirrors the plot of the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon in which the space agency diverts an approaching asteroid.
In the film, a crew led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck save the world by landing on the giant rock and using a nuclear bomb to split it apart.
The real-life operation, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart), does not include a crew.
The spacecraft will blast off on November 23 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Tom Statler, a programme scientist at Nasa, said: “This is our first full-scale attempt to demonstrate that we can change the motion of an asteroid in space, potentially as a way of defending Earth against the hazard of asteroid impacts.
“We’re going to demonstrate one technology to cause that deflection that, some day, if we need to, we might use to prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.”
He added: “We certainly hope that we will never have to deploy an asteroid deflector, but we want to do the test now.”
As its target, Nasa has selected Dimorphos, a small moon about the size of a football stadium, which orbits around the asteroid Didymos.
The mission is being led by Nasa’s Planetary Defence Coordination Office.