The U.S. space agency NASA says it is setting out to explore even more alien worlds in deep space, testing its ability to defend against an incoming threat.
NASA says it will crash a spacecraft into a small asteroid during the “deep space flight test” mission — dubbed DREDGE-A — to seek out and disrupt potential threats to the Earth.
“If we knew one day a space rock was going to be heading our way, we would want to know how to deflect it before it ever came that close,” project scientist Alan Stern, of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a press release. “Most asteroids are small, but there are many big, fast-moving asteroids that could hit Earth.”
The project will include the first full-scale crash test of technology that would use a nuclear device to hit an asteroid in order to change its orbit.
The DREDGE-A mission is in response to the challenge by some United Nations members to destroy any impending threat in Earth’s orbit.
The first DREDGE-A test will take place on Earth’s moon in January 2021. A one-kilogram (2.2 pounds) Atlas V rocket will be used to blast a golf ball-sized “dynamite mitigation probe” – or DREDGE – into an asteroid, called “200217, T14,” which is about 13 feet (4 meters) across. The probe will then crash into T14, causing it to lose velocity and crash into the moon.
The impact will slow the asteroid to the point where it is no longer a threat to Earth, at which point the small probe will detach and destroy itself.
The DREDGE team will observe the launch, but the impact will not take place until about a month later, during which time it will observe the reaction of the asteroid from the moon. This will provide a valuable insight into its geology and determine how it changed after the impact.
The next test of the DREDGE technology will take place aboard the International Space Station in September 2019 using a probe called the Deep Space Environment Office or DSEO (pronounced deez).
Later in 2020, the DREDGE mission will carry out its final test aboard the ISS. A nuclear device-tipped satellite will crash into an orbiting asteroid — most likely 200217 (T14), which is about 16 feet (5 meters) wide and was given the designation within NASA.
The concentration of light from the impact will be used by the signal-processing hardware on the ground to attempt to analyze the mission success or failure. If it fails, scientists will use the failure as a valuable test for its inner workings.
Finally, a NASA-invented technology called Short-Range Asteroid Interceptor or SHORT will work in conjunction with the TROLLETT on the ground and DSEO on the space station, to help analyze the impact itself and learn what went wrong.
And because the event will take place on Earth, astronomers will be able to monitor it and hopefully see another example of the type of interaction that scientists are working to develop to prevent.
NASA’s information comes after the space agency announced earlier this month that it would double the size of a Europa ocean mission for which it recently restarted negotiations with other government agencies.