Few disasters would be as potentially hazardous as an asteroid striking the Earth. While the odds of a massive piece of space debris entering the atmosphere and impacting the planet are comparatively low, the resulting destruction is frightening enough to make it a serious concern for the world’s space agencies.
In a new development that sounds like it was ripped from a summer blockbuster, the European Space Agency has announced that it’s working with NASA to defend earth from falling asteroids. NASA, the American space agency, is preparing a test called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, while the ESA will monitor the mission with their own Hera probe.
Millions of years ago, the dominant form of life on the planet was dinosaurs. They reigned supreme for countless epochs, hundreds of times longer than humans have walked on the face of the Earth. Their seemingly never-ending time at the top of the food chain came to an abrupt and violent end when a meteor entered the atmosphere and impacted what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.
In the most extreme expulsion of energy the planet has ever seen, thousands of square miles of what would eventually be called Central America immediately caught fire. Any animals near the impact zone were vaporized, while the concussive force leveled forests for miles around. Tidal waves, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions followed as massive earthquakes shook the entire planet.
In a word, it was apocalyptic. The resulting global cooling starved out the dinosaurs that weren’t killed in the initial impact, setting the stage for humanity’s eventual ascension. The ESA and NASA are looking to prevent such a scenario from ever playing out again.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will allow NASA and the ESA to study how asteroids respond when nudged by human-made machinery. When the asteroid Dydimos passes near Earth next November, NASA’s DART will nudge its small orbiting moonlet. Then, the ESA’s Hera mission will record the changes in the moonlet to determine how the physics at play could apply to later asteroid deflections.
The mission is going to be completely safe, according to researchers. The moonlet is too small to cause any serious damage to any nearby celestial bodies and the mission isn’t expected to knock it out of the orbit of its parent asteroid. In short, the mission is essentially a game of “cosmic billiards,” according to Professor Alan Fitzsimmons at Queen’s University Belfast.