NASA today awarded SpaceX a $ 69 million contract to redirect an asteroid from its planned route.
The mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), uses a technique known as a kinetic impactor. It involves sending one or more high-speed spacecraft to the path of a near-Earth object, in this case, an asteroid.
If successful, the rocket would take the asteroid away from Earth's orbital path, avoiding the need for a sequel to Armageddon, probably. NASA demonstrated it on a smaller scale with the Deep Impact mission in 2005, the name of another asteroid movie for which we probably will not need a sequel.
The goal of DART is to reduce the reaction time necessary to thwart a catastrophic impact of a space rock that rushes into an important city. Currently, the National Academy of Sciences predicts that it would require one to two years of warning time to divert a smaller asteroid. For larger asteroids, that number could increase up to 20 years, or several decades for the largest rocks, which measure hundreds of kilometers in diameter.
Since we do not have much test data, it is not clear if the kinetic impactors, which should really be called shock rockets, will be effective in something larger than a small asteroid. In June 2021, however, we will be one step closer to discovering it.
The plan is to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Using electric solar propulsion, SpaceX expects it and DART can intercept the small moon of the asteroid Didymos in October 2022.
At that time, the asteroid will be only 11 million kilometers from Earth.