(NEXSTAR) — Space is, of course, full of asteroids and comets. Those that orbit in our solar system are known as near-Earth objects, or NEOs. Some may pose a future risk to Earth, but NASA is prepared to protect us, and you’ll be able to see proof of that Monday.
First, it’s important to understand NEOs. They’re defined as objects that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit, and most are larger than a small football stadium. Six years ago, NASA started the Planetary Defense Coordination Office to find NEOs, warn of their close approaches, coordinate an action plan, and mitigate any potential impacts.
On Monday, the PDCO will make its first-ever attempt to change the path of an asteroid using a kinetic impact during the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).
DART’s target is the near-Earth binary asteroid system Didymos, which is home to two asteroids: the 2,560-foot diameter Didymos and a smaller moonlet asteroid that orbits Didymos, 530-foot diameter Dimorphos. 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.
The autonomous DART spacecraft, “roughly the size of a small car,” was 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 guide it toward its target, Dimorphos, with the help of Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real-Time Navigation, or Smart Nav.
A ride-along CubeSat, LICIACube, will separate from the spacecraft moments before impact to record DART’s collision with Dimorphos.
Dimorphos is expected to be pushed closer to Didymos after DART’s impact, making its orbit smaller.
NASA hopes to be able to measure how much Didymos’ orbit changes using telescopes back on Earth. 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.
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 launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California last November.