In a mission that evokes images of the 1998 film "Armageddon," NASA next month will launch a spacecraft that it plans to deliberately crash into a near-Earth asteroid in the hopes of testing planetary defense systems.
On Nov. 24, a SpaceX rocket will launch from California, marking the start of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission. That rocket will be carrying the DART spacecraft, which will crash into a small 525-foot diameter asteroid named Dimorphos in September 2022.
The asteroid that NASA is targeting isn't supposed to travel within a million miles of Earth. But scientists hope the test will offer valuable insights to develop a defense system that they can deploy in case of emergency.
NASA is targeting a near-Earth binary asteroid system discovered by scientists about 20 years ago. According to CNN, the system — located nearly 7 million miles away from Earth — includes a half-mile wide asteroid named Didymos, and Dimorphos — its smaller asteroid moon.
After nearly a year of traveling in outer space, NASA says DART will reach the asteroid system. At that point, the craft will use a camera — nicknamed DRACO — to autonomously navigate the spacecraft into Dimorphos at nearly 15,000 mph.
"The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of 1%, but this will change the orbital period of the moonlet by several minutes — enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth," NASA said.
The test marks the first time that NASA will attempt the "kinetic impactor technique" — using a spacecraft to bump an asteroid off its path. The data collected in the test will help NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office — which finds and tracks near-Earth objects in space — in developing systems that can be deployed in case of emergency.
Though it's extremely rare for large near-Earth objects to enter the atmosphere, they often come close. According to NASA, nearly 900 asteroids have been discovered within 1,000 kilometers of Earth since 1980.