A multimillion-dollar spacecraft will collide head-on with a football-stadium-sized asteroid in an unprecedented large-scale planetary defense test by the US space agency Nasa on Monday evening.
The 570 kg (1,257 lb) spacecraft named Dart – short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test – was expected to crash into asteroid Dimorphos at high speed and self-destruct around 7 p.m. ET.
The collision between the asteroid and the spacecraft – which is about the size of a vending machine with two rectangular solar panels – is believed to take place around 11 million kilometers from Earth.
The test aims to determine if intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to alter its trajectory and avoid a doomsday scenario for Earth. A relatively similar strategy involving a nuclear missile rather than an unmanned spacecraft failed at a key plot point in Morgan Freeman’s 1998 fictional planetary catastrophe film Deep Impact.
Dart’s planned self-destruction poses no threat to humanity, NASA spokesman Glen Nagle said.
Nagle said Monday’s test was the first in a series of “planetary protection missions”.
“We want to have a better chance than the dinosaurs had 65 million years ago,” Nagle said, referring to the theory that prehistoric reptiles that once ruled Earth died out when a asteroid hit the planet.
Nagle added, “All they could do was look up and say, ‘Oh asteroid.'”
Although no known asteroid larger than 459 feet (140 meters) has a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next century, it is estimated that only 40% of these asteroids have been identified so far. .
Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, but it will take days or even weeks to find out if it actually altered the asteroid’s orbit.
The $325 million planetary defense test that culminated on Monday began with the launch of Dart last fall.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed reporting.