(NEXSTAR) – There are thousands of asteroids and comets — known as Near-Earth objects, or NEOS — that orbit the Sun like any other planet in our solar system, but some can pose a risk to Earth. Thankfully, NASA is prepared to protect our planet.
You’ll be able to see proof of that soon.
NEOs are defined as objects that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit, and most are typically larger than a small football stadium. NASA created the Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016 to find NEOs, warn of their close approaches, coordinate an action plan, and mitigate any potential impacts.
Currently, the PDCO is preparing to make its first-ever attempt to deflect an asteroid and change its path in space with a kinetic impact. During the mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA will launch an autonomous spacecraft at an asteroid to change its course.
Using telescopes back on Earth, NASA hopes to be able to measure how much DART changes the asteroid’s course. The data will be able to help NASA better prepare for an asteroid that could “pose an impact or hazard to Earth,” if that ever becomes a reality.
DART’s target is Didymos, a near-Earth asteroid system that is home to 2,560-foot diameter Didymos and 530-foot diameter Dimorphos, which orbits Didymos. While neither poses a threat to Earth, DART will collide with Dimorphos and, if the mission is successful, will change its orbit in the Didymos system.
Dimorphos is expected to be pushed closer to Didymos after DART’s impact, making its orbit smaller.
The DART spacecraft is “roughly the size of a small car” built by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. It has one instrument aboard — the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, or DRACO — that will autonomously guide DART toward Dimorphos with the help of Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation, or Smart Nav.
Flying into space with DART is a ride-along CubeSat, LICIACube, that will separate before DART’s impact to record the collision.
NASA will be streaming live coverage of DART colliding with Dimorphos on its social media accounts — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — starting at 6 p.m. ET on September 26. Impact is expected at 7:14 p.m. ET. More details can be found here.
The spacecraft will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.